If you’re a person on the earth, you might relate to this scenario, or some version of it:
Your day starts getting out of control—you realize you slept through your alarm or you get stuck in traffic on the way to work, or maybe you get a really frustrating text or voicemail—and the next thing you know you’re stress eating, grabbing whatever snacks are closest to you, eating them almost mindlessly, maybe beyond the point of fullness or comfort.
Yep, we’ve all been there. It’s pretty common to reach for food when you’re feeling heightened levels of emotion—especially anxiety or sadness—even when you’re not physically hungry.
Stress is no fun, and it makes sense to seek out food to cope with whatever you’re feeling at the moment. Food provides pleasure and comfort, which we tend to crave during stressful times. You’ve probably heard or read that stress eating is a huge problem, an unhealthy habit that needs to be curbed right away.
I’m here to tell you that it’s a little more complicated than that.
I actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with seeking food when you’re going through a tough time. There have been times when a bowl of ice cream was exactly what I needed after a crappy day. However, there is a difference between occasionally seeking food to self-soothe and consistently relying on food as a way to cope with what’s going on in life. Using food to deal with life can become problematic when it’s your only coping mechanism.
The truth is that for most (ahem, all?) people, life isn’t going to be a walk in the park each and every day. There will be difficult things that come up, and dealing with those things in a healthy, sustainable way comes down to what practices you have in place to help you navigate through tough times. I’ve had so many clients tell me that they’re going to start addressing their problematic eating behaviors once things get better. You know, once they leave their stressful job, once they graduate, once they launch that big project…the list goes on and on. But the best time to develop a plan is right now when you really need it and when it can really help you
Need help creating that plan? Here are three things I tell all my clients to help get them started on a path toward having strategies other than eating for dealing with stress.
1. First things first: Make sure you’re eating enough throughout the day.
For lots of clients I see, making time to eat satisfying meals throughout the day is one of the first things to go when they get stressed out and short on time. But perhaps the most straightforward and simple thing you can do pretty much immediately to cut down on stress eating is to make sure that good old fashioned hunger isn’t the thing causing you to eat reactively. It’s not that you shouldn’t eat when you’re hungry, it’s more that you’re more likely to grab whatever is closest and eat it mindlessly, past the point of fullness, when you’re both emotional and ravenous.
Eating balanced meals regularly helps to keep our energy stable throughout the day. And by balanced meals, I mean meals that have a combination of carbohydrates, protein, fiber, and fat. Having a bag of chips sounds delicious (and by the way, I am very pro people having chips) but it’s not usually a satisfying snack; it may leave you feeling hungry an hour or two later.
In general, I recommend that people eat either eat at least three meals a day or have smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day; either one works well! Just make sure you have at least three food in each meal you have at least three of the following: protein, fat, carbs, and vegetables/fiber. Below are some examples of what that would look like:
- Tuna (protein) sandwich (carb) with avocado (fat)
- Chicken (protein) soup with potatoes (carb) and cauliflower (veg/fiber)
- Bean (protein) chili with quinoa (carb) and zucchini (veg/fiber)
Also, if you’re feeling hungry in between meals, grab some snacks! If you’re looking for maximum satisfaction with your snacks, try to have them consist of at least two food groups. Here are some examples:
- Apple (carb) with peanut butter (protein/fat)
- Yogurt (protein/fat) with berries (carb)
- Toast (carb) with cheese (protein/fat)
Making sure you’re nourishing yourself throughout the day can be helpful when thinking about what your action plan is going to be!
2. Create a coping toolbox.
During times of stress, it’s a good idea to have a variety of coping tools. When thinking about what’s going into that toolbox, consider whether or not this tool is actually helping you cope and process the emotion. Here are 3 questions worth asking:
- “Is this tool helping me reach clarity and resolution about the problem and it’s making me feel?”
- “Am I using this tool to numb or ignore my feelings?”
- “Do I feel better after putting this tool into action?”
In my experience, people who rely on food to feel better do it as a way to avoid or numb unpleasant feelings. The problem is that when you do this, ultimately, even if you enjoy the thing you ate, you probably don’t feel better in any real or lasting way about whatever was getting you down. And moreover, the elephant in the room—the thing that caused to stress eat in the first place—still hasn’t been addressed. Do I think that you need a therapy session with yourself every time stress is on the rise? No. Sometimes not dealing for a little while with whatever is happening is a totally okay thing for you to do. (That said if you find yourself in an ongoing situation that is continually stressful and overwhelming and it feels like you can’t get out from under it, therapy might be a great option!)
All of this only becomes a problem when you never (or rarely) make time for thoughts or reflections around how you’re coping, and what follows is a series of reactive actions (mindlessly grab the chips, drink too many glasses of wine, cursing someone out…you get my drift?) Here are some of my favorites coping tools:
- Call or text a loved one
- Practice deep breathing
- Write it all down
- Get your body moving (dance, yoga, weights, go for a walk)
- Get a good night’s sleep
- Watch your favorite movie
- Sit with your feelings (crying comes in handy here)
Feel free to use a combination of these to work through your feelings and find clarity during those tough times.
3. Don’t worry about getting it perfect each and every time.
It’s important to remember that there’s no formula for getting this exactly right, and beyond that, it’s not even about getting it right 100 percent of the time. Eating can be a great opportunity to explore what plan of action works best for you, and that takes trial and error for most people! And the wonderful thing is that we eat multiple times a day (I hope!), so the opportunities for exploration are endless.
I have found that people who repeatedly seek food to cope with emotions tend to feel shame and guilt after having had whatever food they’re using to cope. It’s important to be compassionate with ourselves, as we figure this whole thing out.
It’s not the end of the world if you had five slices of pizza after the worst imaginable day ever. It happened, and now it’s time to move on and explore all of the other coping mechanisms we’re going to pull out of our toolbox the next time a similar situation happens. Use this information to create your very own action plan for the next time you’re confronted with stress!
As a registered dietitian/nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator, Wendy is passionate about educating communities on plant-based eating, in ways that are accessible and culturally relevant. She is the co-author the 28-Day Plant-Powered Health Reboot, the co-host of the Food Heaven Podcast, and the co-founder of Food Heaven Made Easy, an online platform that provides resources on living a healthy, balanced life. She regularly partners with national brands like Quaker, Sunsweet, Blue Diamond Almonds, and the Blueberry Council, to create delicious recipes and curated multimedia content. When not working on creative projects, Wendy also provides nutritional counseling and diabetes management to clients in a clinical setting. She uses an integrative and individualized approach towards nutrition, health, and wellbeing. Follow Food Heaven on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.