By Basya Kovacs
I need to clean up from all my sleeping guests. I think it’s a little bit rude that they didn’t strip their own beds. … I’m so disappointed that it was too cold for my kids to wear their new spring clothes. … I must get my kids back into their normal bedtime routine before we all go crazy. … What am I making for dinner tonight? I can’t believe I still have to cook dinner. I should really get a break after making all those meals. … Wow yom tov was expensive — and fattening … I think I gained seven pounds but I’m afraid to get on the scale! … Maybe I should make two dinners tonight — a healthy one for myself and a different one that the children will actually eat. … I must check out Shani’s ear. It was bothering her all Yom Tov . … Am I really eating leftover chocolate from Pesach?! What is wrong with me?!
If any of this seems even remotely familiar to you, you are dealing with stress eating. Stress eating doesn’t come from hunger. It comes from emotional discomfort and is soothed with food. Stress eating is actually an effective way of reducing emotional anxiety in the short term, because foods like chips and chocolate trigger the release of serotonin — a brain chemical that allows you to feel pleasure. Unfortunately, the effects of this process aren’t long lasting, as the extra calories always bring along more stress and anxiety. So why do we do it? We all know that the short-term stress relief is not worth the long-term regret and misery that come from gaining weight, especially when we want to be losing weight! Yet over and over again we find ourselves eating foods that we later regret.
Avoiding stress eating is more difficult than it seems. When we are stressed, we have our own hormones working against us. “Stress activates your adrenal glands to release cortisol, increasing your appetite,” says Melissa McCreery, PhD, ACC, psychologist and the emotional eating expert behind the website Too Much on Her Plate. Stress also impedes hunger hormones, like ghrelin, which regulate your appetite. And if the anxiety is affecting your ability to get to bed, lack of sleep ramps up your appetite even more. So fighting stress eating means fighting a host of raging hormones determined to keep you eating!
So how can anyone fight it? We have found that there are a few keys to successfully fighting stress eating.
Make your environment “diet safe”
If chips, chocolate, or nuts are your go-to for stress relief, do not bring them in the house. The battle begins in the grocery store. If you find that you end up eating whatever is in front of you, then you need to make sure that foods like baby carrots, sugar-free gum, and clementines are more easily accessible than sandwich cookies and leftover cake from Shabbos.
Along the lines of making your environment diet-friendly, make sure you are prepared for emotional stress. Buy ready-made salads and easy-to-prepare frozen vegetables. Prioritize your eating and sleeping habits. Time your day with your meals in mind so you don’t come home starved from a full day of shopping and errands. Make a master diet shopping list so you always have what you need in the house. By eating well throughout the day you will prevent stress eating simply by being less hungry!
Find forms of stress relief that don’t involve food
Take a hot shower or a nap. Make a list to clear your head. Vent to a friend. Read a book or watch a show that distracts you. Buy a punching bag. Any of these can act to release your stress level, thereby reducing your cortisol and ultimately your appetite. We often gravitate towards food to relieve stress because it is immediately accessible and it works (temporarily) but taking the extra minute or two to find a better way to reduce stress is critical. The great part about finding alternative stress relief methods is that they also work!
After choosing a better form of stress relief several times, it will become easier to make that choice. Emotional eating is just a habit, and like all habits, it can be broken and replaced with new habits!
Learn to be comfortable with discomfort
It is OK to be worried, anxious, jealous, resentful, or overwhelmed. You do not have to numb these feelings. We are generally so determined to go back to our comfortable “baseline” that we quickly numb our feelings with food. Challenge yourself to accept the uncomfortable feelings, acknowledge them, but do not force them away with food. The discomfort will pass soon enough without you hurrying it along.
According to studies conducted on thousands of women across many countries and cultures, concern about weight ranked as number one or two on women’s priority list — higher than financial concerns, job concerns, and for some women, even higher than concerns about their relationships! Something this important to us deserves our time and attention. Investing the time, effort, and money to make sure that stress eating doesn’t get to you is a worthwhile priority!
Basya Kovacs is a nutrition counselor and manager of the Monsey and Monroe Nutrition By Tanya offices