Emotional eating is a common occurrence during times of extreme stress. When we feel stressed, it becomes very hard to continue self-care practices like eating well, sleeping, and positive thinking. This is a natural response to being in survival mode.
During stressful times such as a global pandemic, feelings of helplessness, anxiety, fear, and frustration are running high, and emotional eating can be a way to mask and avoid these uncomfortable and distressing feelings. Eating high-fat, high-sugar, and high-salt foods are often a default comforting behavior people use to cope.
We need more energy to process the effects of stress on the body and the mind. Our body is continually breaking down and disposing of the by-products of stress hormones and debris and our brain demands more glucose to manage all these extra processes. This is part of why many of us may feel more fatigued and have increased hunger at this time.
Unfortunately, we are not drawn to vegetables to soothe our fears. Instead, we crave foods that are higher in fats and carbohydrates because they activate the areas of the brain that sense pleasure and safety. When those areas light up, we temporarily feel better.
However, if emotional eating continues over time, this pattern can become addictive. When stress hormones such as cortisol are high in our bloodstream, we also have an increased production of insulin, which has a big role in how we metabolize fats and carbohydrates. When this stress-related system is activated, we can get intense cravings for higher-calorie foods.
Here are eight ways to help you manage your cravings and eat healthier during times of stress:
The first step in reducing emotionally driven eating is acknowledging that it is happening. It is important to recognize your patterns so you can change them. Take some deep breaths if possible, and state clearly in your mind, or better out loud, what your feelings are. “I am really scared right now about what is going to happen”, “I feel so anxious and I can’t stay calm”.
Acknowledging the feelings that are the trigger for the negative eating pattern is a great first step in decreasing this habit. When you are triggered, asking yourself questions about your behavior can help:
Coming up with one or two ideas to practice repeatedly when you are emotionally triggered to eat can help.
Constant news, images. and social media updates are overwhelming and many people are watching significantly more hours than ever before. Limit your consumption of this if it is a trigger for you. Plan to check-in (preferably not at mealtimes!) but focus on things in your life that you can control to reduce exposure to triggers.
To avoid eating emotionally, create a daily schedule that includes eating at regular intervals, and stick to it. This is helpful because it allows you to recognize when you are hungry and eating for the physiological reasons versus emotional ones. Consistent eating times also help hormonal signals stay regulated in the body. It is harder to choose a large portion of comfort food when you notice that you’re full.
When you are eating out of packages, in your pajamas on the couch, you can easily lose sensation of your body and behavior. Always use bowls or plates, even for treat foods, and sit down in a structured area. Using a place mat, dishes and cutlery make the process of eating more defined. And, when you eat meals and snacks sitting upright at a table, it creates a ritual around the process that may increase your mindfulness while you eat.
Eat near a brightly lit window or area with natural light if possible, between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Natural sunlight exposure is helpful to regulate your circadian rhythm, which also connects to your appetite and hunger cues. Having mid-day light exposure can also help with sleep regulation, and getting good rest is crucial to reduce emotional eating.
Fiber keeps you fuller longer than many diet components. With the uncertainty of the grocery supply chain during the pandemic, it may be tempting to avoid buying perishable food. There are, however, many perishable choices that are hearty and have longevity; foods such as apples, pears, citrus fruits, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, and sweet potatoes will last a few weeks before they begin to spoil. Even a high-fiber lower sugar cereal with milk or plant beverage can do a lot to help increase fullness.
If you find yourself in the position of having your hand deep in a bag of cookies, aim to pause and add a few other components to the snack. Adding nuts and whole fruit or vegetables, such as apples, carrots, celery, or almonds to an emotional-eating moment can curb how much you binge on. Water and fiber-rich foods slow digestion making you feel satiated, and this can cut down on how much of the binge food you can eat. It also adds nutrients and healthy fibers to your body, regardless of having an emotional eating moment, which is helpful in the long-term.
It is important to not feel trapped or deprived in how you eat daily as this can increase your desire to binge and eat emotionally. Plan a treat daily and create a ritual around when you have it. Sit in a favorite chair, by a window, light a candle, or put a friend on speakerphone to enjoy the moment when you are having your treat. Offering yourself a treat daily reduces the friction of wanting something you “shouldn’t have”. When you know you will be able to enjoy something, you are less likely to binge on the portion of that food.
However, if you find it hard to control having foods you emotionally eat in the house, buy individual portions or the smallest package available, then divide it up and put it into separate containers for daily portions.
Remember that we all experience periods of extreme stress and it’s important not to judge yourself too harshly during this period. Shame and frustration about emotional eating is not helpful and can reinforce negative mindsets making it hard to shift gears. Reach out for professional help from a Registered Dietitian and therapist if you feel you need support with these patterns. Allow yourself some grace and space during this stressful time and set yourself up to acknowledge and manage the best that you can.
NISHTA SAXENA, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Nishta Saxena a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, founder of Vibrant Nutrition, and busy mother of two kids. Her expertise is focused in paediatric and family nutrition and chronic disease prevention including heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes, as well as weight and cholesterol management. She has helped thousands of families throughout the life cycle experience the powerful health effects of optimal nutrition. She is also a well-known “nutrition myth buster”, promoting evidence-based nutrition. Nishta divides her time between her private practice in Toronto and academic work. She is also a national media expert in food and nutrition, appearing regularly on Your Morning, The Marilyn Denis Show, The Social, CBC, Today’s Parent, and Best Health. Her favourite food is chickpeas.