Stress eating. So many of us have struggled with it or do struggle with it. And thanks to a hell of a 2020 there are probably more people than ever struggling with stress eating.
I know in my days weighing over 300 pounds, I struggled with it. I would say 85% of my clients over the last 8 years have struggled with it as well.
Stress is the number one thing that causes people to fall "off track" in their attempts to lose weight. Think about all the times you've tried to lose weight and fallen off track.
Usually, it’s from some kind of stress eating, emotional eating, or you got overwhelmed, had a crazy schedule, or had some life curve ball thrown at you...some form of stress or difficult emotions.
Maybe you consciously were stress eating because that is your go-to coping tool, or maybe you were like me and didn't even realize how stressed out you were or that you were doing it.
Either way, it's a huge problem we have to solve if we want to achieve long lasting, forever weight loss.
What good is it to lose weight when you are just going to put it back on? That's exactly what will happen if you don't figure out how you can stop eating to cope with stress.
If you happen to be successful at weight loss and you manage to lose the weight without any stressful life events, but you have a habit of stress eating...eventually when life gets crazy, you are going to end up stress eating the weight back on.
Keeping the weight off is really the most important thing when we are talking about weight loss. Again, who wants to lose a bunch of weight, feel great and then slowly gain it back and feel out of control?
It's awful. I've done it before and seen many others fall victim to that trap and NEVER be able to achieve long lasting weight loss because of it.
And then they are stuck in the endless cycle of losing and gaining the same 30 to 40 pounds over and over and over and...you get the idea.
So let's dive into stress eating, shall we?
What is stress eating and how does it affect us?
If you fully understand your stress eating, then skip to the action steps.
Stress eating is any type of eating that causes you to eat things you don't want to due to stress or eat MORE than you want to because of stress.
Often as a response to life stress, overwhelm, anxiety, worry, fear, or any other synonym that is just another way of saying, "I'm in some kind of fight or flight."
When we are in an activated fight or flight mode our nervous system is in overdrive and we are UNCOMFORTABLE. Your sympathetic nervous system is taking over (the branch of your nervous system that controls fight or flight), and you are looking for ANY way to self soothe.
For many people, we either learn this through early childhood conditioning - or like myself, you started stress eating due to some difficult or dramatic life event. My dad dying when I was 22 is where I picked up the habit.
So, we eat to self soothe and to get ourselves out of fight or flight, or to just change our "state" in general.
And it works! That's part of the reason it's so hard to stop doing it. Life stress doesn't ever go away and we have what is essentially an effective coping mechanism for it. (Also a delicious one, lets be honest.)
Except the cost is high. In some cases like mine, really high. It lead to massive weight gain (over 100 pounds), poor health, and an unhealthy relationship with food.
Our bodies weren't meant to eat when our nervous systems are in the sympathetic (fight or flight) part of it.
You've heard of the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system? It's known as the "rest and digest” part of the nervous system.
It's the part of our biology that allows us to rest and repair, AND digest and breakdown all our food properly. Thus sending the appropriate nutrients to the right places in the right amounts to help our body function properly and maintain homeostasis.
Basically when we stress eat we don't do any of that. Because our body is in fight or flight from the stress, we don't produce the correct saliva and enzymes in our mouth, or the right acid in our stomachs, or the correct hormone response to digest, breakdown and properly use the nutrients we are receiving (leaving us still hungry)
In layman's terms, we won't digest the food properly, often leading to gut issues, and we won't get full from it.
Not to mention we don't make great food choices when we are stress eating and that compounds everything because the calories, sugar, and unhealthy food piles up quickly, often before we even realize what we are doing.
I know in my own personal experience that whenever I have stress eaten a lot of food, I can NEVER get full. Even when I've eaten over 2,000 calories stress eating!
(Yes, I have eaten 2k calories stress eating before, how do you think I got to be over 300 pounds!)
And when we are eating all that food, we aren't really in the part of our brain that can think about long term goals or any future-based thinking (the pre-frontal cortex). We are stuck in our survival brain (the reptilian complex) and we can continue to do a bunch of damage we don't intend to do if we really stopped for a second and thought about it.
Essentially it ends up becoming a true cluster fuck. And because stress never goes away, and we don't know what else to do, we keep doing it.
BUT.....I'm going to talk about some things you CAN DO.
First and foremost, you're going to have to make an effort to control your overall stress. That kind of goes without saying. If your threshold for stress is higher, and you aren't stressing yourself out (which I find most of us are, and when we eliminate what I call "self-inflicted stress" we become WAY less stressed) you will have LESS DESIRE to stress eat.
This means trying to get enough sleep, avoiding negativity, getting outside, regular exercise, drinking enough water and eating decent.
But I also recognize that for many people those aren't all options. I often have clients who just can't get more than 6 hours of sleep. So it makes no sense to focus on what you CAN'T DO.
There are ALWAYS things you can do.
- So to start, the most important...BREATHE!
Breathing is our built-in stress reduction system that our bodies have. If you can focus a few times a day taking a few deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth (like a sigh on the breath out) you will start to develop a natural ability to calm yourself down, thus not needing to stress eat as much.
It's something you can do when you notice you start to get a little stressed out BEFORE you go over the edge.
What you are doing is slowly learning to have an alternative coping mechanism other than food. You can breathe your stress away rather than eat it away. Much better for the waistline.
- Safe-haven exercise.
A wizard named Dax Moy taught me the greatest stress relief technique 2 years ago in Thailand, and it's called "safe haven." It is wicked simple and even more effective.
When you notice you're stressed, follow these steps...
- Move first, then be still.
Go for a 5 min walk around the block, literally just 5 min. This pulls energy away from the emotional center of the brain, thus making us less stressed in the process because energy needs to be sent to the part of the brain that controls movement. Being outside is also beneficial for lowering stress.
Then find a place to sit still for a few minutes and get comfortable.
- Breathe. Try box breathing, 4-7-8 breathing (links to those at bottom of page) or just any slow, steady, rhythmic breathing where you breath in through the nose. Again, simple yet POWERFUL.
- Focus on the feelings you want to have. Think about how you would rather feel than stressed - happy, joyful, free...whatever it may be. Focus on what you WANT, not what you don't want. Remember the last time you felt that way and FEEL it in your body.
- Smile. This signals your brain that something joyous is happening and your brain releases the chemical and hormonal response to match.
That's it. Give it a try. I dare you to try it and have it not work. The only way it doesn’t work is if you don’t do it.
- Aside from things that involve breathing, one thing we can do to avoid stress eating is to stop multi-tasking when eating.
When we make a very conscious effort to be present while eating, we start to create a whole new experience and habit around eating.
So no TV, no phone, no anything other than you, your food and any company.
This starts to retrain your brain that eating is something you do very consciously, not mindlessly or because of however you're feeling.
You eat when it's time to eat and set aside specific times for eating. This is often HUGELY overlooked, but I promise if you try it you'll notice a reduction in stress eating. Remember, if you want to change stress eating, you will need to work on small habit changes to give yourself a new experience.
- Slow down your eating! Chew your food thoroughly, take breaks in between bites, and don't be in such a rush to get done.
I know this one might be hard for some people who are crunched for time, but as with above it retrains your brain to have a different association with eating and food.
- Lastly, drink more water and eat more protein.
You have heard that often hunger is thirst masquerading as hunger?
Well often anxiety can be made much worse by dehydration. Aim for a MINIMUM of 60oz of water a day.
Get a minimum of 20-30 grams of protein per meal. This will help regulate your blood sugar and your energy throughout the day.
When we have huge blood sugar spikes, often times that causes us anxiety (which could result in more stress eating). Then, when we have dips in our blood sugar, that can cause us to feel low, down, or even depressed, which can cause us to EAT MORE.
Getting enough protein can help all of that. Yep, it's not just for meat heads who want to build muscle - it's important for all of us.
Those are my top tips. They may sound simple and not ground breaking, but I promise you the best tips are the simple ones because they are easiest to put into action!