8 Healthy Habits to Stop Stress Eating, Say Experts
Everyone handles stress differently, with various coping mechanisms that seem to work for each individual. One of the most common ways that people handle stress is by eating. Stress eating, also known as emotional eating, is a way to repress and negate pessimistic feelings, including stress. But while it may work for some, it’s also a routine that needs to be broken. Stress eating can lead to weight gain and other adverse health issues. Instead, there are other beneficial pressure relievers you can try. If you don’t know what steps you can take to break your pattern, we’ve rounded up the experts on all things food and health to bring to you eight habits to stop stress eating.
1. Eat the right foods.
Just because you are stress eating, doesn’t mean you need to stop eating altogether. Instead, it means you probably need to eat better food options.
According to Sheri Berger, RDN, CDCES, owner of Sheri The Plant Strong Dietitiasn, LLC, you may be lagging in the healthy foods department when making your meal choices, such as not eating enough protein, fiber, or healthy fats.
“Protein is essential for preventing blood sugar spikes and crashes, which can lead to hunger shortly after,” says Berger. “Fiber slows down digestion, aiding in hunger regulation and release of glucose into the bloodstream. Fat contains more calories per gram than protein and carbohydrates, they slow down, digestion, and regulate hunger and satiety.”
2. Practice self-care.
If you’re stressed, it might be time to step back and figure out the root cause of what’s making you feel this way.
“If you find yourself eating for reasons unrelated to hunger, it can be a red flag that you have unmet emotional needs,” explains Michelle Yates, MS, RD, LMNT. “In the case of feeling stressed, food is an easy way to relieve that stress. In order to eliminate stress eating, I always encourage clients to examine their self-care.”
Yates says to think about the last time you said “no” and set a boundary for yourself, or the last time you did something just because it sounded fun. Ponder on how often you are getting quiet, alone time. These healthy habits to stop stress eating will make you take a deeper look into your everyday lifestyle.
“Oftentimes a little more self-care and a lot of grace is the solution for them to drastically reduce how often they are stress-eating,” says Yates.
3. Take a breath.
Getting your body to relax can be essential when stressed, and may even close the door to overeating.
“When we’re stressed, our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode, triggering hormonal responses that can lead to cravings and emotional eating,” explains Bria Gadd, NASM, CPT, HHC, on healthy habits to stop stress eating. “Deep breathing acts as a reset button, helping to activate the relaxation response, soothe our nervous system, and bringing us back to a state of calm. It’s a simple yet transformative practice.”
Gadd states that by practicing deep breathing before meals, you give yourself the opportunity to tap into a state of calm and mindfulness. In return, it helps to shift your focus away from stress and emotional triggers, allowing you to make conscious and nourishing choices when it comes to food.
4. Remove the temptations.
When you’re stressed and feel snacky, think about what you normally reach for; a bag of chips, a tin of cookies, or any other easily accessible junk food. While easy to grab, they’re the snacks making your stress eating even worse.
One healthy habit to stop stress eating, according to Cesar Sauza, MS, RDN, and nutrition Specialist at Healthcanal, is to remove the temptations of those sweet, salty, and overall nonnutritious foods.
“One tool we use for stress eating is advising patients to not have tempting foods at home,” Sauza says. “During stress eating, we are more likely to binge on unhealthy foods we have at home. Many patients report fewer incidences of stress/emotional eating after they stopped purchasing the foods they consumed during stress eating.”
5. Pause before you act.
If you’re ever feeling those negative emotions, sometimes it leads to irrational thinking and quick action, hoping it’ll turn to rapid results. Lisa Dahl, NBC-HWC, Intuitive Eating and Mindful Eating Health Coach, advises you to stop and think before you act with a method called the “Power of Pause.”
“The Power of the Pause helps turn off our ‘automatic pilot mode,’ in which we tend to be highly reactive to feelings such as anger, frustration, or exhaustion,” Dahl explains. “We want to take immediate action to make the feeling disappear and eat to soothe. Usually, after about 20 minutes, the stressful feelings are back, and stress eating was just an ineffective temporary ‘quick fix.’ The Power of the Pause allows you to make a more effective choice.”
Related: 7 Steps to Eating More Mindfully
6. Exercise regularly.
Ever hear the term, “blow off steam?” It means releasing pent-up feelings, and exercising can do just that, making it one of the best habits to stop stress eating.
“Exercise is a great way to reduce stress and anxiety, which can help reduce stress eating,” says Dr. Jerry Bailey, MD, CNS, L.Ac. “When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, which are feel-good hormones that can improve your mood and reduce stress.”
Furthermore, Dr. Bailey suggests that when you exercise, you also increase your metabolism, which can help you burn off excess calories and minimize the impact of stress on your body.
“Regular exercise can also help you feel more empowered, which can reduce the urge to stress eat,” Dr. Bailey says.
7. Distract yourself.
Being stressed can alter your focus on daily activities. You’re so fixated on being stressed that you can’t stop thinking about it and it consumes your mind. According to Yelena Wheeler, MPH, RDN of MIDSS, try keeping yourself distracted.
“If one is really stressed, then it’s time to turn to an activity (other than eating) to distract from the stress while still being something enjoyable,” says Wheeler.
Pick up a hobby to keep your mind occupied. Some healthy distractions Wheeler mentions include bike riding, knitting, or hiking.
8. Get enough sleep.
Good night, sleep tight, and you’ll feel quite alright in the morning.
“Getting enough sleep is essential for good health, both physical and mental,” says Dr. Bailey. “Not getting enough sleep can cause stress and anxiety, which can lead to stress eating.”
According to Dr. Bailey, you’re better able to manage stress and make healthy choices throughout the day when you’re well-rested. However, while it’s important to sleep a certain amount of hours, there’s such a thing as getting too much snooze time.
“Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep per night. The sweet spot for a majority of people seems to be at the seven-hour point,” says Dr. Bailey. “Anything above or below doesn’t offer significant benefits and may be detrimental.”