Why We Are Stress Eating and How to Manage It
Anxiety eating is a common and understandable response to stress, but it's important to develop habits to manage our emotions.
This is an overwhelming time. While I have found ways to maintain a positive outlook to get through gut-punching media headlines, I speak to colleagues everyday who are losing work, dealing with tense relationships at home and experiencing a lot of anxiety. So, emotional overeating is to be expected.
Emotional overeating or “stress eating” is when we start to eat in a conscious or unconscious effort to suppress or soothe negative emotions. High anxiety has driven many of us to take comfort in food, and that explains the 37% spike in sales across companies like General Mills, Nestle and Kellogg’s. Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, Pop Tarts and Toll House Chocolate Chips are flying off the shelves. This is a global phenomenon, and I had to chuckle when I read that the Germans call weight gain from emotional overeating ‘kummerspeck’ – literally “grief bacon.”
My good friend, author of Eating in Color: Delicious Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family, and nationally recognized dietitian Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN explains, “Other distractions, activities and recreation have been taken away from us and it’s extremely unsettling. People turn to food in those time for comfort, and the types of food choices are what affect us most. On social media and in food news, we are seeing people enjoy a lot of baked goods like banana bread, cakes, cookies. Never in a million years would I think the flour and the yeast would be sold out in midtown Manhattan, but this pandemic has caused it to fly off the shelves.”
My personal outlet for stress relief is movement and exercise. I love sweating, and feeling my heart beat, and the endorphins from exercise make me happy. While my urge to “stress eat” is rare, I do have more than one sweet tooth. Here are my go-to tips to managing cravings:
- Ask myself, “Am I hungry? Am I thirsty? Why am I eating?” This simple mindful question allows me to re-asses my choices. The power of the mind is stronger than you think and sometimes, a fruit infused homemade water (or a Hint if you don’t feel like making your own) satiates the hunger that never really was.
- I step outside for a short walk or even just to take some deep breaths of fresh air. Connecting with nature and my own breath distracts me from triggers that would lead me to eat mindlessly. And slightly elevating your heart rate sends feel good chemicals to the brain that help me identify that my need for a sweet was triggered by anxiety.
- Low sugar lollipops and gummies. I’ve always had a sweet tooth and organic low sugar lollipops or gummies are treats I eat frequently, particularly after a meal when I want to continue eating but truly don’t need to. These little suckers or a bag of SmartSweets (you can thank me later), satisfy my sugar craving and allow my stomach the time to digest and send the message to my brain that I’m satisfied and didn’t need more food.
Largeman-Roth, who shares my mutual adoration for chocolate, offers some additional tips:
- Put it away. Largeman-Roth explains that we are stocking up on so much food these days and especially in small kitchens, we don’t have pantry space to put everything away so it’s literally staring you in the face. “Put away as much as you can, because going the extra step to dig it out of the pantry will make you think twice. If it’s out of sight, it’ll help you have it out of mind.”
- Use a small bowl or plate for your snacks. “If you grab the bag of tortilla chips or sleeve of cookies, it’s amazing how quickly we can look down and discover that (shocker!), you’ve inhaled half of it. That’s where we get in trouble. By putting your snacks on a small bowl or plate, you have a visual of what you are consuming and you’ll be more mindful of what you are actually eating.”
- Stick to a schedule. This one is tough for many because of a loss of routine, but capitalize on meal times to be focused around family conversation and sharing delicious food that you may have cooked together. Like the rest of us, Largeman-Roth admits that she had to work to build this new habit as she was accustomed to having her own time to eat, work and exercise with kids at school. “For the first few weeks of quarantine, we slept in and stayed up later than usual. It was OK for a while, but I noticed that we were having breakfast really late, sometimes skipping lunch, and then snacking heavily in the afternoon. Again, not a total disaster, but not something I wanted to make a habit out of, so my husband and I worked to get everyone back on track with the schedule, and that has helped normalize our eating. It’s healthy to be flexible right now, but kids—and adults—thrive on a routine.”
I also consulted with a long-time colleague Lauren Slayton MS RD, author of The Little Book of Thin: Plan-It to-Lose-It Solutions for Every Diet Dilemma, and Founder of Foodtrainers. She has terrific recipes and like me, her go-to cocktail is a spicy skinny margarita. During this time, Slayton advises many of her clients to:
- Develop replacement behaviors. The last thing you want to do when you’re looking for comfort is to tell yourself, “Don’t do it.” First, that doesn’t solve the problem and second, for many of us there’s a rebellious component to emotional eating. The “don’t” makes us want it more. Many Foodtrainers’ clients have a certain witching hour. For some the afternoon is a never-ending snack train, for others it’s after dinner. Perhaps you can take a walk after dinner, or run a bath. Or, maybe you do online yoga or stretching at 3pm. Replacement behaviors are personal, so choose what works for you.
- Focus on protein, produce and a fab fat. “By having these 3 components in your meals, you can keep your blood sugar and energy stable and maintain control, meaning that you’ll have ammunition against the craving monster.” Slayton explains how protein is a natural appetite suppressant so look to eggs, fish, and clean meats, produce feeds your microbiome with fiber, so think raspberries or fibrous veggies such as cabbage or broccoli. And for fats, stick to what Slayton calls a ‘Fab Fat’ such as MCT oil or avocado which helps you curb your sugar intake and satisfies hunger. Here are some tasty lunch recipes examples to try.
- Calm your kryptonite. “Almost everyone has some food or drink they’re leaning on. For one person (ok, it’s me) it’s a cocktail, for another it’s something freshly baked,” explains Slayton. We’ve had enough time quarantining to identify our own, particular kryptonite and try to tame it. “If alcohol is your go-to, look to establish a minimum of 2 ‘dry nights’ per week. Or if you’re craving sweets morning, noon and night (and maybe late-night), limit to what I call ‘one singular sweet-sation’ and pick one time of day to enjoy a portion of sweets. Enjoy it sitting down, on a plate or napkin. The goal is to calm your kryptonite but not try anything severe that will only backfire.”
During her phone sessions, some clients have told Slayton, “there’s a part of me who feels I should just deal with this (eating) when this is over.” While the urge to feed the fear with comfort food is understandable, trust that by adopting better eating habits, you will feel more energized and have a more positive mindset while working, homeschooling and for some out there, trying to survive. Who knows? Perhaps this is your chance to create a new habit and emerge out of quarantine as a healthier and stronger version of you.
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