There's a reason they call it comfort food. If you find yourself reaching for high calorie snacks and sugary treats when feeling stressed, you aren't alone. There is a biological reason behind this common bad habit. Too much stress can do a number on your willpower and in addition, may cause you to make poor food choices, even when you don't feel hungry. But have no fear, it is possible to kick the habit and regain control of your diet. Here's ten tips backed by science to help you put a lid on stress eating and keep your emotions out of the kitchen.
What Causes Stress?
A lot of times we refer to stress as a negative emotion, but it's a little more than that. Stress is a response, both physically and mentally, to any situation that requires change. And it can be positive or negative, depending on how you channel it and how long it lasts.
Stress is essentially our "fight or flight" response. It's what kicks us into high gear when we need it, like when we need to run for our lives or adapt quickly. It can also kick in when life gets uncomfortable due to work, relationship conflicts, finances, or health problems, and it is the more long term, low grade stress that wreaks havoc on our health if not properly managed.
How Stress Affects Your Diet
When stress occurs, a series of hormonal responses follow that result in a release of adrenaline, increased heart rate, blood pressure, and sharpened senses to ready quick action. In addition, cortisol works to release stored sugars and fats for immediate energy (1). This reaction is necessary in certain stressful situations, but may not be ideal if continued over long periods of time.
When poorly managed, stress can lead to a series of health concerns and has been linked to poor sleep, weight gain, heart disease, weakened immunity and chronic pain (2). In addition, the hormonal responses associated with stress can negatively affect your diet by contributing to:
- Increased food cravings
- Physical hunger
- Poor eating habits
- Emotional eating
5 Ways to Manage Stress
You can flip your mentality to make stress work in your favor. A little pressure every now and then can actually be motivating. Stress can help you focus, increase your drive and accomplish more things when harnessed correctly. But this is hard for a lot of us to achieve.
Learning how to channel your stressful energy into a more positive outcome really starts with getting more comfortable with change. If you are someone who has a hard time with change, you likely feel stressed often. Learning to embrace change can do wonders for stress.
Change is all around us. It is happening inside us each and every day - all of your body’s cells are constantly changing, and it is impossible to stop. Without it we sit still, we never grow, we don't get stronger or more resilient, we will just decay and waste away.
Start by recognizing that change can be really good, and that learning to love it is a life skill we all need to work at. Try new things often. Go towards what makes you uncomfortable and embrace it. Find ways to learn from challenges - look back at your failures and hardships as a way to get better moving forward.
Even if you are good with change, negative stress can feel unavoidable at times - it is a part of life. So as you continue to work on getting comfortable with what makes you uncomfortable, here are a five ways you can help keep your mind at ease and handle difficult situations as they arise.
- Eat a healthy diet. Good nutrition is the key to better energy and mood, giving you a good foundation to start with.
- Increase your physical activity. Sweat it out and harness that extra energy in a more positive way.
- Make time to take care of yourself and slow down. Get more rest, go for a walk outside, get a massage, take a nap, read a book, etc.
- Surround yourself with positivity. Spend time with close family, friends, or pets, watch a funny movie, or listen to your favorite music.
- Cut back on coffee and alcohol. Both of these substances can increase anxiety and make you feel more stressed. Instead, try a more relaxing approach like decaf coffee and tea, pressed juice, or CBD.
How to Stop Stress Eating
While learning to manage your stress in the first place is the best way to change this habit, it's not always realistic for all of us. Stress is a natural part of life and we can't always get a good handle on it. But you can learn how to take back control of your reaction to it, including how it effects your eating behavior. Here are a few things to keep in your back pocket for next time your feeling stressed and turn to food:
1. Practice Mindful Eating
Stress often leads to mindless eating, which for a lot of people means grabbing a family sized bag of something crunchy and chowing down. And if you are mindlessly munching, you probably aren’t even enjoying the food. Portion control and paying real attention to the food you are eating is key here.
It's okay to splurge every now and then, but taking time to actually enjoy and experience your food may help you splurge a little less, or at least cut down on the amount you eat. Mindful eating is the practice of eating with intention and it has been linked to improved calorie control, decreased hunger and cravings, and improved willpower - all of which are negatively impacted by stress (3).
2. Think Positive Thoughts
A little bit of doom and gloom is normal. Learn to feel it, sit with it and then move on. It may sound silly, but if you knew the power of your thoughts you may never want to think negatively again. Work on flipping your mindset from “poor me, everything is going wrong”, to something more motivating and forward thinking. Remember everything changes, even the bad things, so whatever it is that has you down, it’s usually temporary.
Research suggests visual and verbal positivity can significantly reduce feelings of stress and anxiety (4). When you are feeling worried or anxious, instead of turning to food, take a few moments and try visualizing a more positive outcome and repeat positive affirmations to yourself. Think about what steps you can take to change the circumstance, or what good comes next.
You can also channel more positive thinking by turning to something that makes you happy. This could be a person, a funny video, a favorite song, or an image. And when times get tough, consider keeping this positive keepsake close by to remind yourself to think happier thoughts.
3. Keep a Food Diary
Similar to eating more mindfully, paying attention to what you are eating each day by tracking it brings more awareness and control back to your diet. Plus tracking your food intake is strongly associated with better calorie control and weight loss (5).
Use a food tracking app to hold yourself accountable, and make a point to track everything - even stress snacking and treats! You will learn a lot about your habits and get a better handle on how to change them. Plus tracking forces you to measure your portions.
In addition, you can also journal your emotions along with your food intake. This will help you see exactly how your mood and stress are impacting your eating. Recognize the patterns the that are throwing you of course and explore ways to stop them in their tracks by planning ahead.
Psst... Trifecta has a free app that allows you to easily count your macros and stay on track with any diet.
4. Get Some Exercise
Stress releases fuel from stored carbs and fats, so what better way to combat this reaction than to use the energy? Exercise can not only utilize excess nutrients that are released, but can also help calm your overall stress response and release more feel-good hormones like endorphins.
In one study, those who exercised regularly were 78% less likely to feel stressed (6). And growing research suggests that these positive effects on stress are also translated into reductions in emotional eating. In other words, keeping up with your workouts may help you kick the habit of stress eating altogether (7).
Can’t get to the gym? You can still get some endorphins going just by taking a walk around the block. Step outside and power walk it out.
5. Avoid Temptation
If you know that you are prone to stress eating, don't keep a bowl of candy on your desk. Just seeing food around can trigger unhealthy eating habits in some people (8). So keep the snacks out of sight and out of mind.
You can also plan ahead with healthier snack options you enjoy eating. Find some favorite low-calorie snacks that satisfy your cravings and keep them on hand for when you need them.
6. Don’t Deprive Yourself
Another important factor in avoiding temptation and cravings is to not be too restrictive on your diet. Cutting calories and trying to stick to a certain diet can drain a lot of your willpower, and when a little bit of stress comes into play you might not have anything left to hold back.
Instead of going into your healthy eating routine with an all-or-nothing mindset, give yourself a bit more wiggle room and learn how to include a bit more balance.
- Work on a more positive relationship with food
- Aim to eat well 80% of the time
- Plan ahead for cheat meals or splurges
- Track all of your food intake to make sure you are sticking to your goals most of the time
- Eat enough to fuel your body, keep you energized, and balance your mood
- Don't cut calories below 80% of your daily calorie needs
- Allow yourself to get too hungry
- Don't restrict all of your favorite foods or cut out entire food groups
- Don't beat yourself up if you slip up or go off your diet
7. Enlist Support
Sometimes you just need to vent or be around people who make you feel really good. We all have that person we turn to when stuff hits the fan. Instead of turning to food, consider turning to a friend or significant other for support.
Try not to drag them out for ice cream or vegging out on the couch to calm your stress. Enlist support that will help get you out of your funk by distracting you with something else or lending an ear to hear you out.
You might even want to consider an accountability buddy that is working on their eating habits too. Sometimes going through change with someone else not only makes it feel easier, but can help you stick to your goals and influence you to make better choices (9).
8. Establish a Routine
It's easy to make changes for a couple days in a row, the hard work lies in making these changes stick for the long haul. This is also how you get results, by being consistent - repeating the same behaviors for an extended period of time.
Often times we talk about consistency as it relates to calorie control, but it can also mean systematizing your diet by establishing routines and habits that help you to be more successful. If you're meal prepping and eating around the same times every day, food becomes less of a hassle and eating well becomes nearly automatic.
Establishing a routine also means you’re less likely to find yourself without healthy options when hunger hits, or to mindlessly snack all day since you didn't plan your meals out well. In one study, those who ate similar foods each day around the same time were able to stick to their diet better and ended up losing more weight (10).
Learning to meal prep or using a meal delivery company like Trifecta that help takes a lot of the work out of dieting can be a lifesaver when it comes to stress eating by decreasing variability and opportunities for poor eating habits.
9. Get Some Sleep
Lack of sleep and stress tend to go hand in hand, and when one is lacking, it can make the other worse.
Continued stress means you’re on high alert for an extended period of time. Not only is this mentally exhausting, but also physically. Sleep is crucial to help restore your system and give your body and mind a break. You may even need more sleep than normal when you’re stressed (11).
In addition, poor sleep is associated with poor appetite control, increased cravings and irritability, all of which contribute to the same negative effects stress has on your diet (12).
Aim to get at least seven hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep a night. Or consider adding in naps!
10. Take a Break
When stress becomes overwhelming, find a way to just walk away from the situation. This could be as simple as stepping outside to get some fresh air or closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths. Taking a break can do wonders to help you reset.
For even more benefits, try meditation or yoga. Research suggests yoga is associated with decreased stress, increased fat loss, and improved mood, and may also help reduce cravings and poor food choices (13,14,15).
Building Healthy Habits
Staying on track with healthy eating is a great way to help counteract stress, but sticking to a diet can also feel stressful in the first place. If you’re finding it hard to juggle your day to day with planning nutritious meals and snacks, meal delivery might be the solution you need.
Get a team of expert nutritionists and chefs to plan, prep, cook, and ship all of your food right to your door. All you need to do is eat it. Want to learn more?