When it comes to stressful situations, some people find food nauseating, while others turn to comfort foods in times of duress. Although there's nothing wrong with using a little ice cream here and there to help soothe the soul, doing so frequently can be problematic, so it's important to know how to avoid stress eating. Most of us don't crave broccoli when we are feeling low, so overeating when we are anxious can not only turn into a habit, but have an effect on other areas of our health.
"Long-term stress causes the release of cortisol, a hormone that triggers the appetite," says Franceen Friefeld, RD over email. "In addition, cortisol increases cravings for salty, sweet, and high-fat foods, the ones that give you a burst of energy and high satisfaction."
Oftentimes, stress eating is not even intentional. It's common for people to pick up food mindlessly or use food solely as a source of pleasure. Unfortunately, these habits can actually worsen your tendency to engage in emotional eating.
"Stress can affect the way you choose foods, how your body digests them and how you absorb nutrients, and it's a vicious cycle," says Friefeld. "Poor food choices contribute to stress, which, in turn, contributes to a poor diet."
If you find you frequently turn to food in times of stress, consider these six tips that can help you cut the habit.
1. Take Five
"Stress eating tends to be mindless," says Friefeld. "Before you even realize what you’re doing, you’ve polished off half a tub of ice cream and a large bag of potato chips. So when you are faced with a craving, if you can pause for a few minutes, you are giving yourself the chance to make a different decision."
Although you can use exercise as a tool to press pause on your cravings, exercising during any time of the day can help lower stress and reduce your desire for unhealthy foods. "In addition to being a great stress reducer, exercise does wonders for your mood and your energy levels," says Friefeld.
3. Keep Healthy Foods On Hand
"Keeping 'comfort foods' that you reach for when stressed, is just inviting trouble," says Friefeld. "If you choose to keep them in the house, buy them in individual sized servings (or pre-portion them yourself) to keep you more mindful of portion size." Other healthier snacks to keep on hand include plain popcorn, frozen yogurt, and baked chips.
4. Get Enough Sleep
Studies from the journal Appetite found that short sleep duration and low quality of sleep can lead to increased emotional eating. "Feeling tired can increase your stress levels, leading to more eating," says Friefeld. "To control your appetite and reduce food cravings, try to get about eight hours of quality sleep every night."
"Not only can meditation reduce stress, but it can also help you become more mindful of food choices and help you prevent the impulse to grab a sugar and fat-loaded items," says Friefeld. Multiple studies have found that mindfulness-based meditation is an effective intervention for binge eating and emotional eating.
6. Be Kind To Yourself
"Remember that eating does soothe us, and that that is OK," says clinical psychologist Ben G. Adams, PhD over email. "Don't beat up on yourself simply because eating feels good. We all love to eat, and there are evolutionary reasons why we experience cravings to eat food in excess amounts."
Not everyone has the same stress eating habits, but it's important to know how to identify yours to keep you from constantly turning to food when you're stressed instead of dealing with it in a healthy way. Frequent binge eating and stress eating can be a sign of a larger problem or an eating disorder, so if you suspect you may have an issue, you may want to consider seeing a specialist. You can visit EatingDisorderHope.com to find a specialist in your area.
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