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July 30, 2018 / Emily Polson

How to Stop Stress Eating: 4 Strategies to Conquer Emotional Eating

Cookies snack

Stress eating, or emotional eating, is such a common issue that we all know its signature remedy: comfort food. Those sugary, salty, creamy or crunchy foods make us “feel better” when we’ve had a stressful day or are going through a rough time. Yet this tendency to eat when stressed never seems to actually make us feel better in the long term, and instead can lead to guilt and weight gain in the short-term.

If emotional eating is something you deal with, you’re not alone—but there are several ways to battle that urge to soothe our feelings with food. These methods, backed by scientists and health professionals, will help you recognize the root cause of comfort eating and work on long-term solutions for managing stress.

Recognize Your Emotional Eating Patterns

In order to stop stress-eating, first recognize your personal triggers: when, where, and why you do it. Dr. Sherry Pagoto from the University of Massachusetts Medical School recommends keeping a food journal and recording your reason for eating right alongside the list of what you ate.

You can also try the HALT method for tracking your mood: are you eating because you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? When you track these emotions alongside your food intake, you’ll start to see the patterns in your eating behavior. Do you always end up binging on potato chips after a hump day at work? Do you tend to eat ice cream at night when you’re feeling lonely?

Our tendency to eat in stressful times is a learned response: the more often we use food to cope with stress, the stronger the habit becomes. And eating high-fat, high-sugar foods just reinforces this association between food and comfort, according to a 2010 study from the University of California San Francisco. Once we recognize this pattern, though, we can take steps to change it.

Swap Out Your Snack

The first step to reducing the amount of stress eating you do is to keep your worst offenders out of the house. That’s why identifying your emotional eating patterns is so important. If you don’t keep potato chips in your house, you can’t reach for them when you’re feeling down.

Because our association between eating and comfort is so strong, however, quitting cold turkey doesn’t work for everyone. In order to retrain your brain, you can replace comfort foods with healthier alternatives. The Cleveland Clinic recommends eating foods that can actually help you cope with stress, such as antioxidant-rich green or white tea, cherries, and dark chocolate. This way your brain still enjoys the habit of munching without the unhealthy foods that reinforce the bad habit.

Find a Healthier Coping Method

While food can help us avoid stress for a moment, it won’t address its root cause. In order to overcome that urge to eat, we need to find healthier alternatives to handle these emotions. Think about what else you can do in place of eating during stressful times. That might be going for a walk, listening to music, coloring or crafting to keep your hands occupied, or just talking to a friend.

One option is to practice mindful meditation. A 2017 study showed that practicing mindfulness can help highly stressed individuals reduce their tendency toward emotional eating. Mindfulness is not just about recognizing the desire to eat for comfort, but also about learning to manage the emotions that cause the stress in the first place. This is one of the many benefits of mindful meditation has on your overall health.

Ask Yourself One Question

When choosing a coping method, ask yourself if it will make you feel better or worse the next day. Usually the answer is pretty straightforward: going for a walk will help you feel better, whereas finishing off a sleeve of Thin Mints probably won’t.

This simple exercise can help you to reconsider how your choices in the moment will make you feel in the long term. Once you acknowledge the true cause of stress eating, you’ll find it easier to choose the healthier option.

Emily Polson
Writer

Emily is a writer, reader, and traveler from Iowa who has visited twenty-one countries and lived in three. Her first publication was an article in Muse magazine about her summer job as a corn detasseler. She’s a Slytherin, an amateur ukulele player, and a Peter Pan enthusiast. You can follow Emily on Twitter @emilycpolson.

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