We’ve all been there. Whether it was a rough day at the office or a fight with a friend or partner, it’s easy to use food as a coping mechanism for how we feel. Of course, we don’t always recognize the connection between what we eat and how we feel. For a lot of us, it’s a habit we’ve formed a long time ago, picked up from parents or friends along the way. The danger in stress eating, however, isn’t something that should be ignored.
Emotional eating, or stress eating, is more than just a habit. According to many nutritionists and psychologists, it’s actually part of our evolution. As babies, we learned to cry to be comforted, often in the form of food or nourishment. As such, today we still feel compelled to reach for food when we’re feeling emotionally distraught. The problem is that this type of coping can do real damage to our bodies; we’re eating when we’re not really hungry, and often making poor dietary decisions to boot.
While it’s good to remember that eating should absolutely be pleasurable and comforting, we also need to learn how to deal with our stress in other healthier ways – not just reaching for that bag of chips or ordering a pizza.
Once you recognize the connection between your stress and how you eat, you can start to rewire your brain by giving yourself something else to do when stress levels get high.
Below are three smart ways to better manage your stress in order to help curb stress eating.
- Physical activity is one of the best ways to combat your stress. Rather than immediately reaching for food, take some time to exercise first – even if it’s just for ten minutes. This not only helps to rewrite your habits, but it also increases your appetite for healthy food. After you exercise, your body naturally feels hungry. And, because your stress levels have decreased with physical activity, it’s much more likely that you’ll make a better decision about what to use to fuel your body.
- Enjoying time with friends. The next time you feel stressed and are tempted to eat, try calling a friend or loved one first. Not only can a one-on-one conversation help reduce your stress, but it gives you something else to do other than eat. Oftentimes we feel like isolating ourselves when we feel stressed, which tends to only make the problem worse. Instead, find someone in your circle who you can trust and who you enjoy spending time with in order to help feel better.
- Taking time to reflect. Rather than coping with your emotions through food, try using a reflective practice to help you better understand them. Meditation and journaling are both great options that can help you get to the root of how you feel. As you make progress, you’ll understand why you feel stressed and, using that information, you’ll be able to make decisions that actually improve how you feel – not just eating to mask it.
Another great piece of advice? Create a routine around structured meals each day. Prep your meals ahead of time so that they’re ready to go, regardless of how you’re feeling. The more you retrain your brain to develop a positive relationship with food (rather than using it as a crutch), the better you feel physically and emotionally.