It’s a familiar story: You’ve had a long, stressful day at work. The idea of cooking dinner seems overwhelming, especially when there’s a full bag of salty chips in the pantry. You turn on the television, grab the chips, and sit down. Before you know it, your T.V. show is over and the chip bag is empty. You feel overcome with guilt for not sticking to your healthy eating goals, and vow to only eat carrot sticks tomorrow. However, the stress and exhaustion that caused the chip bag to be devoured isn’t going to disappear overnight.
What is Emotional Eating?
Our weakest moments are when we’re most likely to engage in emotional eating. When we’re tired, stressed, or sad, it’s easy to use food as a source of comfort. Foods high in sugar, salt, and fat can also activate the reward centre of the brain, which can create an addiction-like effect. These foods will make you feel good in the moment, which can cause people to overeat as a way to temporarily escape negative emotions. Emotional eating often becomes a cycle of stress and overeating, which leads to more stress.
However, it is possible to break the cycle and reset your emotional eating patterns. The key is to be aware of your emotional eating triggers and teach yourself healthy coping mechanisms. There are several tools you can use to help yourself adopt healthier habits when you’re in a negative headspace.
Healthy Stress Management: Tips to Stop Emotional Eating
- Be mindful of your triggers: What stresses you out? Write down a list of your biggest stressors. Is there anything you can do to relieve some of this stress, such as setting healthy boundaries with friends and family, or lightening your busy schedule? It’s impossible to remove all of the stress from your life, but consider what people, things, and situations cause the most stress.
- Find outlets for your stress: A big part of breaking the cycle of emotional eating is learning healthy habits. Think about some things you can do to cope with negative emotions instead of turning to food as comfort. For example, you can listen to your favourite playlist and go for a walk, take up mediation or yoga, practice deep breathing exercises, or keep a journal.
- Create a lifestyle diary: Keeping a lifestyle diary will help you be aware of what you’re eating, how much, what you feel when you eat, and how hungry you are. You will likely see patterns emerge that will help you learn more about the connection between food and your mood. You can use this knowledge to help you be aware of what emotions and situations cause you to use food as a means of short-term stress relief.
- Check your hunger: It’s important to learn the difference between real hunger and a food craving. For example, if you’ve already eaten breakfast but you’re craving a delicious, sugary frappe from your favourite coffee shop as you drive to work, you’re probably not really hungry. Give your food cravings some time to pass instead of indulging every time.
- Battle your boredom: It’s common to snack to alleviate boredom. What can you do when you’re bored, instead of mindless snacking? Write down a list and keep it handy for the next time you’re tempted to snack as a way to waste time. You can go for a walk, play with your pet, read a book, watch a new series on Netflix, browse the internet, call a friend, listen and dance to music. You can also adopt a fun and creative hobby, like painting, colouring, or crafting.
- Build your support network: Creating a supportive social network is an important part of managing stress. Talk to your family or friends and make an effort to spend more time with them. You can also reach out to support groups based in your community to meet new, like-minded people.
- Tackle temptation: It’s okay to indulge in your favourite comfort foods sometimes, but be aware of the foods you find hard to resist. If you find it difficult to control how much you eat of your favourite foods in one sitting, avoid keeping those foods at home. For example, instead of buying a whole container of ice cream to keep in your freezer, make ice cream a treat you enjoy outside of home and only order a single scoop once in a while.
- Keep healthy snacks around: If you’re hungry between meals, make sure that you have healthy snacks readily available. Healthy snack options include fruits, sliced veggies, and a handful of nuts. Keeping convenient and healthy snacks in your bag and stocking your kitchen with healthy options will make it easier to make nutritious choices.
- Take it day-by-day: As you change your habits, don’t expect immediate perfection. If you experience a setback in your progress, don’t stress. Occasional setbacks are part of the learning process as you become more mindful of what triggers your emotional eating. Consider what you can learn from each setback to prevent it in the future. Be proud of each positive change you make and remember that each day is a new opportunity to make healthy choices.
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