There have been a few memes going around about people gaining fifteen pounds while we are under a shelter-in-place order. They are funny, except that for a lot of people it is a real risk. This week I was asked to talk about how to manage stress eating in a Facebook group (video below). This article is based on my notes for that talk, with a few things added in that I have thought of since then.
What is Stress?
Stress is feeling responsible for something but not having the control to do anything about it. When this becomes overwhelming in a work environment we call it “burnout.” Right now many of us feel responsible for keeping ourselves and our family members safe while also feeling like we have to protect strangers from ourselves in case we have somehow been infected and don’t know it. It feels like we are fighting an invisible enemy but there is no actual battle going on.
What is Stress-Eating
Stress eating, also called emotional eating, is an unhealthy coping mechanism many of us use to self-sooth. This behavior often taught early in childhood. When a baby cries, we put a pacifier in its mouth. When a toddler is teething, we give them a teething ring to chew on. Children are often rewarded with sweet treats for good behavior.
Is it any wonder that as adults we want to put things in our mouths when we feel bad?
In addition, the rush of “happy” chemicals that flood our brain when we eat that perfect combination of salt, sugar and fat pushes the stress away for a few moments.
This combination of nature (how the brain works) and nurture (that we are taught to sooth emotions by putting things in our mouths) is the perfect set up for stress eating to become a habit.
What does stress do to our body?
Our caveman brain thinks we are going to be eaten by a lion. Cortisol (stress hormone) goes up. Digestion slows or even stops (who cares about digesting lunch if you are going to BE lunch) and your body starts to crave fast, easy energy to be burned to avoid the crisis. If the crisis is not short-term and the calories aren’t burned right away, they are stored for later use.
It’s a good system if you have to avoid being eaten. It doesn’t work as well when the crisis isn’t something you can run away from and is ongoing.
How to manage stress without using food
Move your body – do it with your kids
- Tia chi/qigong
- Shake – toddlers throw a tantrum. You don’t have to have a meltdown like that. Just bouncing your body while shaking your arms can burn stress away
Talk it out – clue your logical brain into what is going on
- Out loud to yourself
- To a friend – requires reciprocation and you might feel judged
- To a professional – sometimes a stranger is easier to talk to than someone you know
- Some pros are offering pay what you can phone, zoom, skype (I am currently offering pay-what-you can individual sessions to non-clients. Use the contact page to set up time to talk)
- Small children can talk to their favorite stuffed animal
Write – have your kids write a story
- Scrap paper that you can throw away
- Shred or tear it up if you’re worried about someone else reading it
- Just get it out
- You can’t do it “wrong”
- Online guided meditation
- Z technique/Ziva technique
Get enough sleep,
Good sleep hygiene
- Bedtime alarm
- Bedtime pattern
- Dark room
- Nothing but sleep, snuggling and sex in bed
- People with a TV in the bedroom are less intimate
- Continue to get up at the same time
Get a weighted blanket
If possible, have physical contact (only with the people who live in your house!)
- Hug your kids
- Hold hands
- Snuggle on the couch
- Have sex
Why we choose to eat junk
Our bodies are looking for quick energy. Processed junk food is the perfect source. A lot of the digestion work has already been done. The fiber is gone and the energy has been ground in to tiny pieces (think about the difference between a wheat berry and white flour), making it really easy for your body to get it from your GI tract and into your bloodstream quickly.
However, the fat, sugar and salt we crave for quick energy has almost no nutrition. Your body is going to keep saying you’re hungry because it’s looking for vitamins and minerals, not just empty energy. If you keep eating fat, sugar and salt, you can end up with a stomach that feels full (because it is) and still “feel” hungry.
How to avoid stress eating
- Notice when you do it. You are most likely to stress eat in the evenings after you have used up all your willpower not yelling at your kids, remembering not to roll your eyes while on a video conference call and trying to figure out common core math.
- Use your circadian rhythm to your advantage. Eat the bulk of your calories and nutrition for breakfast. When your body feels like your nutrition needs have been met, it is less likely to have you rummaging through the pantry at 8:30 at night.
- Eat real food. Unprocessed plant-based foods are your friend. Beans, whole grains, root veggies (like sweet potatoes and carrots), greens, bulbs (garlic/onions), cruciferous veggies (broccoli/cauliflower), ginger, turmeric and fruits of all kinds.
- Realize that snack foods are not a must. I know it feels like you need to have chips, cookies and whatever other snacks you like in the house. But you don’t. Like Chef AJ says, “In your house. In your mouth.” Don’t bring them in and you won’t eat them. Yes, this is even true if you have kids. They don’t need snacks either.
- “I like crunchy food.” Eat a carrot. Don’t want to eat a carrot? It’s not the crunch you’re after. It’s the salt, sugar and fat. Be honest with yourself and adjust accordingly.
Reducing your stress is the best way to avoid stress eating. But, with all the uncertainly in the world right now, stress is a reality. So feed yourself well, make smart choices, and mitigate your stress with a few of the tips above.
We will get through this. Life will be different on the other side. But humans are nothing if not adaptable.
Stay healthy and be in touch if we can support you in anyway.
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Dr Robyn is a former competitive volleyball player turned psychologist with continuing education in nutrition. Russ is a former competitive bodybuilder and trainer on the Mr. Olympia Tour. They are the co-founders of Whole Food Muscle and the authors of How to Feed a Human The Whole Food Muscle Way. To work with them one on one to improve your health and fitness or to have them speak at your event or organization email them at Health@RnRJourney.com.