How to Stop Feeding Your Stress With Food

Running a business can be an emotional roller coaster, but along with the ups and downs of the business can come changes in eating habits. During times of stress, food can be a source of comfort, providing an instant pick-me-up when we’re feeling burnt out. But the downsides of emotional eating far outweigh its benefits. Clinical psychologist Dr. Jenny Taitz, author of End Emotional Eating, says emotional eating at work can negatively affect our health, happiness, productivity and self-esteem.

While indulging in a buttery croissant or a chocolate bar may provide a temporary energy jolt and boost the brain’s feel-good chemicals, regularly soothing feelings with food causes us to avoid dealing with our emotions and leads to a vicious cycle. Just 30 minutes later, emotional eaters tend to feel guilty about their indulgence and become even more stressed.

There are real psychological and physiological reasons why we turn to food for comfort. “Stress increases our cortisol levels and that can mask as hunger,” says Taitz. In fact, misinterpreting stress as hunger is one of the major causes of emotional eating.

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Our food of choice when we’re feeling stressed? Carbs! Carbohydrates release serotonin – the body’s feel-good hormone – producing that quick pick-me-up effect we desire. The problem is, too many carbs overload your body with energy it can’t use, causing rapid weight gain. Too many carbs in the form of refined grains and sugars can also cause blood-sugar levels to spike rapidly and fall, leaving you feeling hungry and sluggish for the rest of the day.

If you recognize yourself as an emotional eater, follow these five strategies to reduce your dependence on food as a stress-relief mechanism:

1. Slow down. Combining eating with some other activity, such as checking email or watching a TED talk on YouTube, distracts from the food and can cause you to overeat. Focusing on what and how much you’re eating allows you to become more in tune with your hunger, ensuring you’re eating to fuel your body rather than simply placating an emotion.

2. Develop alternative coping mechanisms. Rather than stuff your bad mood with food, build a repertoire of activities that help with stress relief, such as taking a walk around the block, calling a loved one for a couple of minutes, downloading a mindfulness meditation app or taking a few deep breaths. Surrounding yourself with photos that calm you or quotes that inspire you can also help prevent you from turning to food at the first sign of stress.

Related: 8 Ways to Stay Calm During a Crisis

3. Stock your snack drawer with healthy options. If your office snack drawer is full of chips and chocolate bars, those are the foods you will gravitate to when feeling stressed. Filling your office fridge with healthier options will help reduce the negative health impacts of emotional eating.

4. Avoid skipping meals. Providing your body with a steady source of fuel through regular meals will reduce the chances of you misinterpreting your emotions as hunger. If you have a hard time remembering to take lunch breaks and regular snacks, Taitz recommends setting a food alarm and stepping away from the desk to eat.

5. Keep a food journal. Keeping track of your emotions can help you understand your emotional relationship with food. Write down what you eat and how you feel when you’re eating. “If you learn to observe your emotions and describe them, that gives you more control,” says Taitz. Writing down hunger level on a scale of one to 10 can also help you interpret whether you’re eating because your body is telling you you’re hungry or whether you’re simply feeding your emotions. 

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