Stress can make you feel as though you’re hungry when what you really need to do is find a non-food solution to the problem facing you. Try these zero-calorie stress busters to ease your emotions.
Have you ever noticed that when you get stressed about work or family, you find yourself reaching for the nearest chocolate candy? While some people lose their appetite (and may even feel sick to their stomach) over stress, you might be conditioned to soothe yourself with food, and end up taking in more calories than you want. Continual stress eating can start packing on the pounds.
Stress Eating: Real or Imagined Hunger?
“There are different layers to this; some we understand more than others. People have learned to cope with negative emotions and make themselves feel better with food,” says Martin Binks, PhD, director of behavioral health research at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center and assistant professor at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. Stress is a learned response — and so is eating under stress.
If you grew up in an environment where food was used to manage emotions, you’re more likely to stress-eat, explains Binks. If you learned healthy stress management techniques growing up, you probably turn to something other than food when you’re stressed.
Stress eating also occurs because stress triggers hormones that can cause hunger. “There is evidence that there are complex hormonal symptoms involved in hunger and fullness and appetite that are influenced by stress and by sleep,” says Binks. This combination of coping mechanism and biology is why some people automatically turn to food to ease stress, while other people find different solutions.
Stress Eating: Breaking the Habit
Stress eating is an emotional response that over time becomes automatic, says Anne Wolf, RD, a registered dietitian and researcher at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. “Every time we engage in a behavior, the more we do it, the more it becomes a pattern, then it becomes a habit,” says Wolf. “To tackle that habit you’re going to have to learn a new habit.”
So the next time stress threatens to send you to the kitchen or nearest vending machine, fight the urge. “First feel the sensation of stress. Stop, sit down, do some deep breathing, feel it, then just see what happens,” says Wolf.
It’s important to stop and think about that: Are you actually hungry, or just craving food in response to stress? “What typically will happen is that the feeling will dissipate and then you realize you can let go and you don’t feel that hunger any more,” says Wolf. This is the pattern you have to follow and repeat until it becomes the new habit.
Stress Eating: Finding Food Alternatives
Managing your stress in healthier ways can also help keep you from responding to it by eating. Try these ideas:
- Exercise. Regular exercise can help prevent stress, and exercising when you are stressed can help manage the emotion and burn calories, not pack them in. Instead of running to the kitchen, lace up your shoes and head for a run, or walk, outside.
- Give yourself a break. Whatever you’re doing that’s causing you stress, just step away from it for a while. If you’re thinking about a situation that’s creating anxiety, distract yourself with a more pleasant topic.
- Think positive. Come up with a plan to resolve the situation that’s bothering you. Nothing beats stress more than solving the problem that’s causing it.
- Relax. Meditate, visualize a peaceful place, or listen to some music to calm yourself down.
- Do something fun. Take an impromptu shopping trip, play a game of golf or tennis, call a friend, or watch a movie that you enjoy.
It may take some time, but you can retrain yourself to eat when you’re hungry, not stressed. Learning to tell the difference between the two is your first step. Then, find another outlet instead of using food to satisfy your emotional hunger.