“With most people, the first thing to go when we’re stressed is self-care,” said Jennifer Wegmann, lecturer in health and wellness studies at Binghamton University, and author of the audio series “Resilience: The New Science of Mastering Stress and Living Well.”
When Wegmann says self-care, she doesn’t mean things like massages and manicures, but the true basics: exercise, sleep and eating. “We let go of those things first because we think we need to be better for other people.”
Those affected by anxiety are the most likely to stop eating, said Debra Kissen, chief executive of Light on Anxiety CBT Treatment Center and member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. This goes back to our ancient ancestors. “When you’re about to be eaten by a lion, and you either need to fight or take flight, it’s not really efficient for your gut to be digesting food. It’s a waste of energy,” she said.
This kind of reaction makes sense for an immediate threat, though it isn’t the best way to handle food in the long term. It’s “a prehistoric way of surviving that for a modern life crisis can be ineffective,” she said.
On the other hand, overeating can be the result of a gamut of things, from depression to simply having stocked up on your favorite sweet before self-isolating. For those who are now working from home, having unlimited access to the kitchen might mean more grazing.
Your body’s physical stress response could be playing a role too, said Mackenzie Kelly, a clinical psychologist at Rush University Medical Center. When stressed, our bodies release the stress hormone cortisol and make more insulin, “which impacts the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats, and when that’s activated, it can impact food selection,” she said.
The foods you are more likely to then crave are often carbohydrates or high in fat, which dampen the effects of increased cortisol and insulin, shutting off the stress response.
While an occasional food splurge like this won’t be a problem and you should give yourself a pass if you’ve binged on the food you typically avoid, repeatedly eating carbohydrates and high-fat foods will dampen the impact they have on your moods. So you could still be eating like this without getting the same stress-relieving benefits, and eating less healthily to boot.
Recognizing what stress and anxiety are doing to us and our eating is the first step in getting a handle on the situation, Wegmann said. “Once we can acknowledge that we’re afraid,” she said, we can start to look at what behaviors that stress is changing.
In the short term, eating too much or too little “is probably not a huge deal for somebody who’s healthy,” she said. As this situation continues, though, “it’s beneficial to get back into moderation.”
Kelly said that one of the best things that will help with stress eating is time. “If people are feeling stressed or anxious, just allowing some time to pass can help,” she said. For those who feel they’re snacking too much, doing something else to pass the time can help those urges to eat go away.
For those who are eating too little, she suggests finding something tolerable to eat or trying something calorie-rich to drink, like a protein shake. “It would be one thing if this was a day or two, but we’re in this for a while,” she said.
If you are overeating, make sure that the foods you are reaching for aren’t only packaged snacks, and be sure to include things like fruits and vegetables in your snack choices.
Also, if you find yourself forgetting to eat (and then possibly eating too much at the time you are finally very hungry), you can also schedule meals into your calendar, just as you would any other appointment of the day. Or set alarms to remind yourself to eat your usual meals and drink a glass of water.
Remember, self-care also means allowing yourself to enjoy your food fully. Now is not the time to add stress in the form of worrying about consuming a few extra calories or one skipped meal. Reducing that pressure may make eating feel normal again, too.
Ways to Control Stress Eating
Face Your Demons Thought we’d start with something nice and light, right? Nah … we’re going to go deep here!
When you stress eat, you’re not doing it to fill a physical need. Your body isn’t screaming, “Hey, you haven’t fed me in days! Bring on the grub!” You’re doing it to fill an emotional void. You want that tub of ice cream or bag of chips to make that bad better. And momentarily, it does! When you eat sugary comfort foods, the reward system in your brain gets activated and you feel great.
But how do you feel afterward?
Unless you have a magic wand, the underlying issue the thing that got you stressed in the first place is still there. So, whether it’s a heavy workload, difficult relationship, or any other situation that’s causing you grief, you need to confront the problem. Only then will you be able to help tame those massive kitchen raids.
Limit Temptation If junk food is your downfall in times of stress, then you need to take an “out of sight, out of mind,” approach. This starts at the grocery store. Do your best to stick to the perimeter of the store, where healthier, fresher foods can be found. If you fill the bulk of your cart with overly processed or sugary items, that’s exactly what you’ll reach for when cravings hit. Remove the temptation, and you’ll be forced to go a healthier route.
On that note, one way to tell if you’re eating for hunger or eating for stress is seeing WHAT you gravitate towards. If you’re genuinely famished, you’ll be happy to eat anything – including fruits, veggies, and high-protein snacks. If you’re eating for comfort, then you’ll likely want one thing and one thing ONLY. So before the damage is done, pause and ask yourself: What am I really eating for?
Ditch the Crazy Diets It’s been shown that nearly 50% of women are on a diet at any given time.* That’s a whole lotta woman trying to get lean through often-drastic nutritional measures. Monitoring what you eat is one thing, but when fad diets have you slashing calories or boycotting entire food groups, you’re in trouble. You’ll find yourself feeling more tired, irritable, and desperate for the foods you’re not “allowed” to have. In short, you’ll be the worst kind of HANGRY – the kind on the brink of a giant binge.
Watch what you eat, of course. But don’t completely deprive yourself of food that delights you. Instead, allow yourself the occasional treat, and stick with a well-balanced, nutrient-dense meal plan to help keep cravings at bay.
Move It and Groove It Have you ever had to push yourself to go to the gym? If you can honestly answer “no,” to this question, then we salute you! For the rest of us humans, there are times when the urge to exercise isn’t so strong. But when we do go, boy does it feel good afterward! We walk out feeling like we can take on the world! Any stress we had pre-workout is all but a distant memory.
Moral of the story: Exercise is a far better coping mechanism than stress eating. Not only does it send happy, stress-fighting chemicals to your brain, it also helps you become fitter and more confident in the process. So when that urge to hunker down on the couch with a lapful of junk food hits, opt for exercise instead. Gym or no gym, any heart-pumping activity will do!
Rally Your BFFs Countless studies have shown that people who have strong social relationships tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer. Conversely, people who have limited social support tend to experience more anxiety, depression, and feelings of stress.
Rather than heading straight for your kitchen at the end of a bad day, try heading out with close friends instead. You’ll be amazed at how being around others can give you the same quick “high” that comfort food can.
Or, maybe you just want to slide into your fuzzy PJs and stay in for the night. That’s OK too. A simple text or call to a friend can give you the outlet you need.
When it comes to relationships, just remember it’s all about quality over quantity. It’s not how many friends you have, but how deep those friendships are. If you can’t get past the “Nice weather today, huh?” chit chat, then you should probably lean into someone else for more meaningful support.
And When All Else Fails … Distract, Distract, Distract If you feel a massive stress-eating binge coming on, find a happy equivalent to distract you. Maybe it’s taking a hot bath, reading a good book, or quietly meditating. Whatever brings you joy AND keeps you away from the kitchen will do the trick!