The Stress-Eating Cycle

Are you an emotional eater? When you feed your stress, a destructive cycle begins. If so, you may eat whenever you’re anxious, upset, nervous, or depressed. Although emotional eaters can still put it away when they’re happy, delighted, non-anxious, and non-depressed (and yes, during those rare times when they’re actually hungry), most emotional eaters eat when they feel they need to feed their stress.

You feel stressed, so your food choices are not always the best. For some reason of cruel fate, foods that tend to make you feel good are usually the foods that are not so good for your body. Research studies have shown that stressed emotional eaters eat sweeter, higher-fat foods and more energy-dense meals than unstressed and non-emotional eaters.

Chocolate, ice cream, pizza, cake, donuts, and cookies may make you feel terrific — but, unfortunately, only for about 17 seconds. Then, of course, your stress returns (plus a ton of guilt), and you feel the need for another bout of eating. The cycle repeats itself.

The first step in breaking the cycle is becoming aware of exactly when you are distressed and identifying your feelings. When you feel the urge to open the refrigerator door, you need to realize that you’re experiencing some form of discomfort. It may be hunger, but more likely it’s stress.

Before you put any food in your mouth, stop and take stock of your emotional state. One way of determining whether you’re truly hungry or merely having an emotional desire to eat is to ask yourself another question: “Would healthy foods (a salad, low-fat yogurt, banana, or apple) appease my desire to eat?”

If not (and you’re thinking about fast food, chocolate, pizza, cake, or ice cream) your eating is probably not about satisfying basic hunger. It’s about eating in response to stress. Simply breaking the stress-eating connection for even a moment can give you a different perspective and an increased level of motivation that can sustain you, until you find something a little more redeeming than filling your mouth.

The following are some other tips that you can use to improve your relationship with food when you’re stressed.

Distract yourself

One of the best things you can do is involve yourself in some activity you enjoy that will take your mind off eating. Do something. Anything.

Substitute relaxation for food

Whenever you’re about to open the refrigerator to calm your frayed nerves, consider substituting a relaxation break. Simple deep breathing, rapid relaxation, relaxation imagery, or any of the other marvelous techniques that can induce an emotional calm. That’s all you may need to ease you past a difficult moment.

Work with a stress cue

Sometimes a little reminding goes a long way. Create a stress-eating reminder that you can put on your fridge or on the cabinet where you keep delicious snacks.

You may decide to be less brutal and opt for something more neutral. One friend has the question “Are you really hungry?” taped to her kitchen door. Even more innocuous is a simple little colored circle of paper you can affix at strategic places in your kitchen. It reminds you that you shouldn’t open the door unless you’re hungry. Only you know what it represents and why it’s there.

Eat your breakfast

Research shows that eating a nutritious (low-fat, high-carbohydrate) breakfast makes you more alert, more focused, and in a much better mood than if you have a high-fat, high-carbohydrate breakfast; have a moderate-fat, moderate-carbohydrate breakfast; or have no breakfast at all.

Skipping breakfast can lower your body’s ability to cope with the stress that lies in wait for you later in the day. Starting the day on the right nutritional foot is important. When you wake up in the morning, as many as 11 or 12 hours have passed since you last ate. You need to refuel.

And don’t forget lunch

Lunchtime tends to be one of the busier times of your day. With a lot to do, eating lunch may be low on your list of priorities, but don’t skip it. Your body functions best when it gets fed regularly. Missing lunch can leave you feeling tense and edgy.

Eat like a cow

Eating a big meal can result in your feeling lethargic soon after eating. To digest that heavy meal, your body needs a greater supply of blood. This blood has to come from other places in your body, like your brain, depriving it of some of the oxygen it needs to keep you alert. The solution? Graze like a cow.

Spread out your eating fairly evenly throughout the day. Avoid those huge meals that load you down with calories and leave you feeling ready for a nap. Instead consider smaller, lighter meals at your regular mealtime.

Supplement them with healthy snacks. Have breakfast, a mid-morning snack, and then a light lunch, another snack later in the afternoon (a piece of fruit is good), and a moderate dinner. A snack later in the evening (try some air-popped popcorn) should avert any hunger pangs. It seems to work for cows, doesn’t it?

Drink like a camel

Most people don’t get enough liquids. Every day you lose water through your breath, perspiration, urine, and bowel movements. For your body to function properly, it’s important that you replace this water loss by drinking beverages and eating foods that contain water.

So how much should you drink? The oft-heard advice is, “Drink eight eight-ounce glasses of water a day.” Although the “8 by 8” rule isn’t supported by hard scientific evidence, it remains popular because it’s easy to remember. The Institute of Medicine’s estimate agrees with this determination (1.9 liters per day).

Load up earlier in the day

For most people, the simplest way to lose weight is to eat more in the first half of the day than they do in the last half. Then they have time to burn off many of those earlier calories. Recall that old bit of nutritional wisdom, “Eat like a king in the morning, a prince at noon, and a pauper at night.”

Simply supplement

If you think you may not be getting enough of your needed vitamins and minerals, consider taking a daily multiple vitamin and mineral supplement. If your daily diet gives you all the nutritional good stuff you need, this may not be necessary. However, you may be one of the many whose diet is not nutritionally praiseworthy and could benefit from some supplemental help. Talk to your doctor first if you feel you’re not getting enough nutrition and are thinking about taking supplements.

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