The source of emotional eating often stems from multiple stressors, and why it’s important to hone in and listen to your what your body is telling you. Here’s how you can do it.
Can you relate to this scenario?
You get to work, plow through emails, and in-between completing your daily tasks are taking mini-trips to the candy bowl or snack selection.
Then you get home after a long day at work.
You’re hungry. You’re tired. Your house is a mess. Dinner is nowhere near being ready. You pull out a bag of chips and munch as you’re cooking, or maybe you ditch cooking all together and order pizza.
These daily struggles are often viewed as stress eating: feeling stress or discomfort and turning to food.
And if you can relate, just know that you are not broken.
Stress eating doesn’t manifest from lack of self control or willpower; in fact, quite the opposite. Often when we experience “stress eating” or “emotional eating”, there are four prominent factors at play (although there are likely many more):
Physiological hunger, the diet mentality, intense stress or uncomfortable emotions, guilt.
So before you “try to have more willpower”, consider trying these instead.
1. HONOR YOUR HUNGER
When we’re physiologically hungry, our brain prioritizes finding food. And if you’re in a state of stress and physiologically hungry, there is no way for us, no matter how much willpower we have, to unlink those too things. We can’t meditate or walk-off hunger.
Unfortunately, honoring your hunger can be difficult because we’ve been conditioned to think of hunger as having an “on” or an “off” switch. The reality is that hunger is more of a range, and it can take some time to recognize the full range of your hunger. This is especially true if you have a history of dieting or disordered eating, which can stunt hunger cues.
Try fueling your body with satisfying meals and snacks every 2-3 hours, and avoid going longer than 5 hours without eating. This can help make sure that your body is nourished throughout the day, and prevent you from the extreme levels of hunger that can often back-load “stress eating”.
2. DITCH THE DIET MENTALITY
The diet mentality has absolutely nothing to do with whether you are on a formal “diet” or not. The diet mentality is essentially the black-and-white thinking we have around food; the categorizing of foods as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, to be eaten or not to be eaten. This makes for an extremely charged relationship around food.
If you’re feeling hunger and stress, it makes perfect sense that you tend to reach for your favorite foods (which may also happen to be foods you may be trying to limit or avoid). Those foods are likely to bring you an overall sense of joy and satisfaction, which is why you may be reaching for them in the first place.
Instead of restricting yourself, give yourself unconditional permission to eat your favorite foods, especially during times where you are feeling more relaxed and have the opportunity to really enjoy them.
3. GET OVER GUILT
Here’s the truth: “stress eating” or “emotional eating” wouldn’t be pathologized if we didn’t feel guilty afterwards. The feeling of guilt is the feeling of “I’ve done something bad”. If you identify as a “stress eater”, more likely than not there’s a part of you that feels like you’ve done something bad or wrong by using food as a coping mechanism.
The next time you feel the urge to “stress eat” or “emotional eat”, try pausing just for a moment. The purpose of the pause is to identify your experience.
Are you feeling hungry? On a scale from 1-10 (1 being ravenous and 10 being stuffed) where do you fall on the hunger scale)? Are you craving a specific food? What are your feelings towards that food? Is it neutral, positive, or negative? Are you feeling stressed? What are you feeling stressed about?
Start to identify your experience so you can prioritize your needs. It is absolutely possible to feel hungry and stressed at the same time. However, it can be even more difficult to mitigate stress while hungry, so prioritize fuel and nourishment.
4. VALIDATE & MITIGATE STRESS
Stress is absolutely real as you experience it, and isn’t simply “all in your head”. If you can, take a moment to validate your stress. Refrain from “toxic positivity” thinking (i.e. “I have no reason to be stressed, my life is fine!”), allow yourself to feel stress, sadness, overwhelm, anger…whatever it is that’s coming up for you.
Then make a short list of 3 activities that would feel truly nourishing and start crossing those off. Maybe it’s walking the dog, eating a satisfying meal or snack, or watching a show. Or you may love listening to a podcast or audiobook, reading in bed, or taking a hot shower. It can even be taking a full pause from all activities, and just take a few deep breaths.
Whatever these activities are, make sure they can be done easily in your time of need.
When we zoom in and take a closer look, stress eating is very rarely only triggered by stress or an intense emotion. There are multiple factors at play, and it requires trial-and-error to work through your struggles and triggers.
And by asking more questions, you can tune in to uncover what you truly need.
Adapted from the original article.
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Jessi Haggerty, RD is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, and Personal Trainer with a private practice outside of Boston, MA. She is the host of the BodyLove Project podcast and runs an online course for personal trainers on eating disorder screening, nutrition, and body image. Learn more at www.JessiHaggerty.com.