By: Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training, Herbalife Nutrition
We are all learning to navigate our new normal. The stay-at-home order has led us to change the way we communicate, exercise, work, and eat. All of these sudden changes and the necessity to adapt quickly can result in feeling stressed.
Since May is Mental Health Month, it’s a great time to be talking about stress and how to manage it. You may be surprised to learn that anxiety and stress can manifest in your eating patterns, leading to what is commonly known as emotional eating or stress eating.
What Is Stress Eating?
Stress eating, or emotional eating, is pretty much what it sounds like — it’s when you eat in order to escape whatever bad feelings you’re experiencing, in the hope that food will make you feel better.
Sometimes it’s a conscious decision, but more often it’s just a mindless response to a vague, negative emotion that you can’t quite put your finger on. Stress and boredom can trigger emotional eating, particularly when you’re stuck at home and surrounded by food all day long. Whether you’re ordering in comfort foods that are higher in calories than your usual meals or cooking at home with limited ingredients you have on-hand, you may be eating differently than you used to.
Stress can bring on fatigue or depression, so healthy eating might take a back seat to foods that are comforting. Those high-calorie comfort foods can stimulate the release of certain chemicals in the brain that make us feel good, but also make us want to keep eating. In a vicious cycle, overeating can lead to weight gain — increasing stress and which, in turn, can lead to more overeating.
What’s the Best Way to Prevent Stress Eating?
The most important thing everyone should be doing right now is taking the best possible care of themselves, and that involves practicing good eating habits to keep yourself healthy. Here’s my advice on how to stop emotional eating:
Own up to your feelings.
You know that emotions are the trigger for your stress eating, so why not acknowledge them? It’s OK to feel mad, lonely or bored sometimes. The feelings may be unpleasant, but they’re not dangerous, and you don’t always need to “fix” them. Let your emotions come and go without judging them.
Find alternatives to eating.
A brisk walk or a cup of herbal tea might work instead. If you feel the need to eat, try hard, crunchy foods; they help relieve stress by putting tight jaw muscles to work. Try snacking on a handful of almonds, soy nuts or baby carrots.
Eat regularly and don’t skip meals.
Give yourself permission to eat. When you’re stressed, it’s easy to put meals off or even skip them altogether, however, your energy levels will suffer as a result, and you might even end up overeating when you do finally eat. If stress is an appetite-killer, try eating smaller amounts of food more often during the day.
Cut back on caffeine.
People often feel a lack of energy when they’re stressed and turn to caffeine as a pick-me-up, but it can disrupt your sleep at night. If caffeine keeps you awake at night, drink decaffeinated coffees and teas.
Practice mindful eating.
When you eat mindfully, you try to become more aware of your internal signals of hunger and fullness. You also become more in tune with what triggers you to eat in the first place. Mindful eating can help you avoid overeating and allow you to enjoy your food more—even when you eat less. You can also learn to pay more attention to what you’re choosing to put into your body.
Remember, this is not the time to be restricting your intake, but a time to focus on eating the most nutrient-dense foods you can in order to optimize nutrition to support a healthy immune system. This pandemic has undoubtedly added stress to all of our lives but learning how you cope with it can make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.
For more information, please visit IAmHerbalifeNutrition.com.