How to avoid stress eating
Q: I’ve been going through a bit of a stressful personal situation and I’ve noticed that my eating is being affected. What are your tips for avoiding stress eating? Thanks, Joan.
A: Many people turn to food in times of stress, many of us eat to numb ourselves from feelings we’d prefer not to feel. It can be helpful to ask yourself what you really want. What emotion are you seeking to pacify if you’re not eating out of hunger?
If you’re unable to determine this, the type of food you desire can be a good indication – put it this way, you don’t normally crave a big bowl of steamed greens for dinner if you’re eating emotionally. Typically, it’s cakes, biscuits, lollies, bread, cheese, crackers, ice-cream you name it – things that we perceive to provide some comfort. Yet food cannot comfort us. It cannot hug us or reassure us that things will be OK. Food was never designed to play that role.
By eating while you’re experiencing emotions that you find challenging, you are giving food a new significance, beyond just meeting your nutritional needs. Food becomes a coping strategy, making your desire for it intensify. You begin to believe that you need this food to get through these emotions you are experiencing. The first step is to try to find comfort in non-food related ways, for example: go for a walk, read a book, talk to a friend, tidy-up, observe nature, watch your children sleep, or make yourself a cup of herbal tea.
The next time you sit down to eat, bring your awareness to the present moment – to how you feel right now. Are you feeling anxious or overwhelmed? Is your heart racing? Practise taking three long, slow breathes to relax your body. It can help to acknowledge your food, the effort that has gone into growing or preparing it - rather than engulfing it before you’ve even consciously realised what you are doing.
Here are some steps to help stress eating:
Remove all judgment about what you are about to eat – instead focus on slowly enjoying each mouthful. Judgment around food certainly adds to feelings of stress and anxiety, which makes it harder to digest that food. Remember it was what you do every day that impacts your health not what you do sometimes.
Pay attention to your food and how you feel after eating it – this is the best guide to knowing which foods make you feel good. When you start to be present with food – you start to taste it and enjoy it more, which will make you feel much more satiated after eating. This also reduces your chances of overeating when you’re feeling stressed or anxious.
Slow down and enjoy your food, don’t rush it. Make an effort to sit at the dinner table and be present, rather then eating on your lap in front to the television, in the car on your way home, or at your desk. When you start to become a ‘conscious’ or ‘present’ eater you will learn the art of moderation – you are also more likely to be aware of when you are full.
Chew your food well. There are no more teeth to chew your food once the food has left your mouth, chewing your food well also helps you to slow down. Identify the emotion you are wishing to avoid or the emotion you are seeking the food to give you. How else can you experience this that doesn’t involve food?
Dr Libby is a nutritional biochemist, best-selling author and speaker. The advice contained in this column is not intended to be a substitute for direct, personalised advice from a health professional. Visit drlibby.com.