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Stopping Stress Eating in Its Tracks

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Stopping Stress Eating in Its Tracks

Stress is no stranger to us. We’ve all experienced stress at one point or another, whether it stems from being stuck in traffic, taking care of family, worrying about COVID-19 or managing diabetes every day. Everyone has stress from time to time; some people cope with stress in healthy ways, while others turn to less-than-healthful ways, such as emotional or stress eating. If you find yourself frequently turning to food for comfort when times are tough, read on to find ideas to try to help you end emotional eating. 

Stress, defined 

The National Institute of Mental Health defines stress as “how the brain and body respond to any demand.” Anything that you find challenging can bring on stress, and stress, in turn, can impact your health.  

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Not all stress is bad; for example, a stressful situation such as a job interview or performing in front of an audience can motivate you to do your best. But chronic stress can cause disturbances to your immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep and reproductive systems. As a result, you may experience physical symptoms, such as headaches, chest pain, stomachaches or sleeplessness. Or your symptoms may be more emotional, such as sadness, irritability or anger.  

Stress and diabetes 

Everyday life can be stressful enough; managing a chronic condition like diabetes can add another layer of stress. The daily demands of diabetes self-care (taking medication, checking blood sugarscounting carbs, staying active) can actually raise stress levels. Higher stress means higher blood sugars (similar to when you are ill, for example). And those higher blood sugars can lead to more stress. Being under stress can also impact your desire or ability to take care of yourself. How? You might not take your diabetes medication regularly, stop checking your blood sugars, or eat less healthful foods. What happens? Your blood sugars may climb even higher.  

Food as comfort 

When you’re under stress, it’s natural to find ways to deal. Some people binge watch television. Others turn to alcohol or drugs. And still others turn to food. Finding solace in something — anything — is a way to block out and even numb yourself to the stress. Research shows that stress, whether it’s physical or emotional, tends to increase the intake of sugary and/or fatty foods. Not many people reach for a celery stick when they’re stressed out; instead, they tend to turn to carb foods that may be high in fat, such as ice cream, cookies, cake or potato chips. Why carbs? It’s thought that carbs help to combat stress, possibly by raising levels of “feel good” brain chemicals, such as serotonin, dopamine and endorphins.

A vicious cycle

There’s nothing wrong with reaching for a sweet treat now and then if you’re upset or feeling blue. But constantly turning to food as an emotional “Band-Aid” does little more than serve as a temporary distraction. Once the food is gone, the emotions return; you’re then left with facing them, along with possibly feeling guilty, ashamed and even physically ill. You can easily become embroiled in an unhealthy pattern of feeling stressed, overeating, feeling bad and then overeating again. How do you break this emotional eating cycle?

Dealing with stress eating head on

Try the following steps to help you get a better handle on your emotions and put an end to stress eating.

Figure out your triggers

Are there certain feelings or situations that have you heading for the kitchen? Stress at work; being unemployed; and feeling lonely, anxious or depressed are common triggers that can lead to feeding your feelings. Spend some time pinpointing what yours are.

Keep a food journal

Start writing down what, how much and when you eat, as well as how you’re feeling when you’re feeling stressed. Journaling can help you identify reasons for stress eating if you are having difficulty connecting your emotions to food. And, keeping a food journal has other benefits, including helping you see the impact of your food choices on your blood sugars and your weight.

Make a list of stress busters

Come up with a list of go-to alternatives to eating when you’re feeling stressed out. Suggestions include drinking a glass of water, setting a timer for 5 minutes before you reach for food, going for a walk, journaling, deep breathing, or calling up a friend.

Hide tempting foods

Keeping a package of cookies or tubs of ice cream within easy reach can make it more likely that you’ll head straight for them when you’re feeling troubled. Make it a little harder to do this by either not bringing tempting foods into your home, or hiding them in the back of the cupboard, refrigerator or freezer.

Keep healthier choices within reach

If the urge to eat strikes when you’re stressed, go for lower-calorie, lower-carb foods that give you some nutrition while you’re noshing. Cut-up raw veggies are always a good option; hardboiled eggs, rolled-up turkey breast, avocado, nuts, seeds berries, air-popped popcorn and string cheese are also alternatives as long as you keep an eye on portions. For higher-calorie foods like these, try portioning them out into snack baggies rather than eating out of the container.

Learn to relax

Easier said than done, but making a point to chill out a bit can defuse a stressful situation and also lower cortisol levels (remember that cortisol is a stress hormone). Taking deep breaths is a quick and easy way to calm down. Progressive relaxation focuses on tightening and relaxing specific muscle groups to both physically and mentally relax you. Anyone can do this; to learn how, check out this video.

Another great resource to help you relax and destress is the website and app called Headspace. Founded by a former Buddhist monk, Headspace provides guided meditations, articles and videos to “be kind to your mind.” Learn more on the Headspace website.

Practice mindfulness when eating

Have you ever noticed that you aren’t tasting, savoring and actually enjoying food when you’re stress eating? If so, it’s likely because you’re eating quickly and mindlessly to help tamp down your feelings. As a result, you aren’t aware of flavors, textures and the volume of food that you’re consuming. Making a point to slow down and pay attention to your eating can help you appreciate your food and also help you tune in to signs of fullness. This is called mindful eating. A great way to get started is to stop eating when you’re doing other things, like watching TV or scrolling through your phone. Mindful eating is a technique that can improve your relationship with food. It’s not difficult to learn, but you need to practice to get the hang of it. Get started with mindful eating here.

Get to the root of the issue

The above steps can be helpful in the moment, but if you are finding yourself continuing to stress eat, it’s time to dig deeper and figure out how you can confront your triggers and hopefully banish them for good. For example, if you are having problems at work, think about what steps you might take to resolve them (e.g., talking with your boss or co-workers or starting a search for a new job). If national or world events set you on edge, limit the amount of time you spend watching the news or on social media. If being cooped up at home with your family is crowding your space, call a family meeting to come up with a game plan on how everyone can get some “alone time.”

Seek help

If you continue to struggle with stress eating, it may be time to consider getting professional help. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy used for a number of issues such as depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug problems, and marital issues. The focus of this treatment is to help the person change his or her thinking patterns and use problem-solving skills to better cope with challenging situations. The good news is that CBT can be provided in different ways, including via telehealth visits and even online. If you’re interested in exploring CBT, talk with your primary care provider, who can refer you to a therapist. To gain a better understanding of what a CBT session is like, watch this video.

Be nice to yourself

We have a tendency to be hard on ourselves. Feeling guilty, ashamed, or being overly self-critical after a bout of stress eating only leads to more feelings of poor self-worth. Realize that none of us are perfect — we’re only human! At one point or another, emotions do win out, so beating yourself up about giving in to comfort foods only serves to add to your stress. If you find yourself in a pattern of self-criticism, try a little self-compassion. Practicing mindfulness can help. You might also try treating yourself as you would a friend or family member in the same situation. For more information about how to practice self-compassion, visit the Positive Psychology website.

Want to learn more about managing stress? Read “Stress and Diabetes: Relaxation Techniques,” “Three Ways to Cope With Stress”  and “Stress: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES on social media

A Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Good Measures, LLC, where she is a CDE manager for a virtual diabetes program. Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition & Meal Planning, a co-author of 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, and has written for  publications including Diabetes Self-Management, Diabetes Spectrum, Clinical Diabetes, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation’s newsletter, DiabeticConnect.com, and CDiabetes.com

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