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What is stress eating and 7 ways to avoid it

Do you ever find yourself reaching for a packet of biscuits or grabbing some fast food after a stressful day at work? Maybe snacking at your desk has become your go-to strategy when trying to meet a tight deadline? 

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the reasons why we eat when stressed and explore preventative measures to break the cycle. 

Want to skip to the section where you find exactly what methods are used to avoid stress eating? View the table of contents below. 

What is stress eating? 

Often referred to as comfort or emotional eating, stress eating is where we reach out for snacks as a reaction to emotional stress rather than as a result of actual hunger.  

Why do we eat when stressed? 

A 2018 survey conducted on behalf of the charity Mental Health Foundation revealed that 46% of those surveyed admitted they ate too much or ate unhealthily due to stress.  

Feeling under pressure can trigger the release of hormones such as cortisol, which can lead to cravings for comfort foods, usually rich in sugar, fat, and calories, as a short-term method to reduce stress levels. This can contribute to: 

  • weight gain 
  • craving more and more comfort food 
  • greater risk of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases 
  • disrupted sleep patterns 

How to avoid stress eating 

Below are 7 strategies to try if you’re looking to curb your stress-eating habits: 

1. Identify your stress eating triggers 

Recognising your triggers enables you to identify situations where you’re likely to get stressed and put measures in place to swerve the temptation to stress eat. For example, you might find yourself eating more when trying to hit a deadline or when dealing with family conflict. At this point, taking some time away for yourself or practising mindfulness exercises can help steer you towards healthier coping mechanisms. 

2. Swap food for exercise 

When everything starts to get on top of you, don’t reach for the biscuit tin…reach for your trainers instead! Exercise not only boosts your overall health, fitness levels and mental wellbeing, it’s also a great stressbuster, releasing your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters endorphins. These are your body’s natural painkillers, but they also promote feelings of pleasure too. Even a brisk 10 minute walk a day can work wonders for your stress levels, leaving you feeling calmer and more refreshed.  

3. Practise mindful eating 

Mindful eating (being fully present and attentive to what you are eating and how it makes you feel) is a great way to tackle stress eating as it helps you pay closer attention to what your body actually needs. By practising mindful eating, you can take the time to understand your hunger signals, helping you distinguish between emotional and physical hunger. 

4. Start a food journal 

A food diary can help you keep tabs on the what / when / why of your eating habits. By listing all the food and drink you consume on a daily basis, you’ll start to spot the triggers and patterns of eating when stressed. If you notice you snack more after a bad day at work or home, you’ll be able to take steps to avoid using food as a coping mechanism. These steps might include drinking more water, heading outside for exercise and keeping sugary or salty comfort foods off the shopping list. 

5. Eat a balanced, healthy diet 

A balanced diet can help combat stress eating by providing your body and mind with essential nutrients required to tackle stress. Not only can eating healthily stabilise your blood sugar levels, helping to prevent energy dips, it can also help keep you fuller for longer, making you less likely to snack. 

6. Drink more water 

Drinking water at regular intervals is great for your all-round health but can also be a great antidote to stress-eating by helping you feel more energised and fuller for longer. When you're hydrated, the body is less likely to mistake thirst for hunger. Additionally, taking slow and steady sips of water can be soothing in itself, promoting a sense of calm.

7. Take time out for yourself

Removing yourself from a stressful environment and taking time out for yourself to do activities you enjoy, be it listening to music, reading, walking or yoga, enables you to shift focus away from the triggers of stress-eating. Some much needed ‘me’ time reduces overall stress levels, making you less inclined to seek comfort in food. Additionally, engaging in self-care promotes mindfulness, making you more aware of emotional and physical hunger cues.  

Want to discover more on how to combat stress eating? 

We all feel the heat from time to time and it's common to seek temporary solace in a sugary treat to distract ourselves from the negative emotions we may be feeling. The important thing is to not let food become the go-to method for tackling stress, as any short term benefits will rapidly be outweighed by long term detrimental effects. 

If you’re keen to explore more way to stop stress eatingbing eating when stressed, LiveWell Dorset is here to help. We’ve got lots of great resources on our website and our coaches can help create personalised plans designed to support you and your health goals. Simply register with us today or get in touch if you'd like to find out more. 

Helplines 

Do not suffer alone, help is out there. For specialist advice call Beat Eating disorders, a UK based charity whose mission is to end the suffering caused by eating disorders. 

England Helpline: 0808 801 0677 

Scotland Helpline: 0808 801 0432 

Wales Helpline: 0808 801 0433 

Northern Ireland Helpline: 0808 801 0434 

Further reading 

Ivan

I drank too much alcohol and had unhealthy eating habits. Pastry is such a bad thing, it's all those pies, pasties and sausage rolls!

View full story

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