Life can get incredibly stressful, and no matter how hard you've been working to keep your diet healthy and balance, sometimes it seems like it would be easier to climb Mount Everest than to withstand that slice of chocolate cake or tub of ice cream. If you've ever struggled with stress eating, and the inevitable guilt that comes afterward, don't worry. There's nothing to be ashamed of for making a small mistake, and there are a number of ways to adapt your thinking and make healthy choices next time the stressors of life start piling up.
What is stress eating?
Stress eating, or emotional eating, occurs when someone uses food to cheer themselves up, even if they're not physically hungry. This practice establishes food as an emotional crutch, especially unhealthier foods such as sweets, chips, and the like. This can result in repeated patterns of unhealthy eating that can cause serious damage to an otherwise healthy diet, and also prevents the individual from addressing the root of the issue, whether it be a stressful job, an unhealthy relationship, or poor mental health.
Why do people stress eat?
It's all a matter of hormones. When you're stressed, your adrenaline levels are high. While this is helpful in situations where the fight-or-flight instinct is implemented, it's the exact opposite if you're existing in a constant state of stress. When you're stressed for an extended period of time, the hormone cortisol is released. Unlike adrenaline, which suppresses appetite, cortisol increases it. On top of this, certain foods, particularly those containing high levels of sugar and/or fat (such as ice cream, cake, chips, and the like), tend to suppress the body's response to stressful situations, providing a physiological as well as an emotional relief. Unfortunately, though, this is only a temporary solution to a long-term problem. If you have a high-stress job, for example, eating a pint of rocky road ice cream might help you feel better right now, but it's not going to alleviate the pressures of your daily life. It's similar to putting a band aid on a bullet wound--it'll help for right now, but it won't do you any good in the long run. As a matter of fact, it will do more harm than good. No matter how healthy the rest of your diet may be, if you're downing several hundred extra calories in comfort food to help you deal with life, all of your hard work in nutritional planning is going to waste.
How can stress eating be avoided?
First, examine the root of the issue. What's driving you to go to refrigerator for ice cream, or to McDonald's for a milkshake and fries? Are you faced with great deals of stress at work, or in a relationship, or just life in general? Try to remove yourself from the cause of your stress as best you can, and if necessary, seek a professional counselor (there's no shame in admitting that you need help or in getting the help that you need). Next, find alternative outlets for letting off steam. Exercise, meditation, and yoga are all great options, but as long as it's not harmful and helps you relax, then go for it! Jigsaw puzzles, gardening, wood carving, music, jogging... the list truly does go on and on.
How to tell if you're physically hungry or emotionally hungry
Many times, emotional eating occurs because of emotional hunger. This is different from physical hunger in that emotional hunger is entirely independent of your digestive system. If you're physically hungry, then it will be a slow build-up, whereas emotional hunger frequently comes on suddenly. Not only does emotional hunger often lead to emotional eating, because it isn't physical, eating won't make it go away. Furthermore, physical hunger is centered in the stomach, and emotional hunger in the head. If you think that you have to eat but your stomach isn't hungry, then you're emotionally hungry.
What to do if you stumble
If you cave to pressure and end up drowning your sorrows in food, don't worry. It's not the end of the world, and there's always tomorrow. Practice self control, even if you need a little help (such as not keeping unhealthy foods in the house). Ask a friend to help: find someone whom you know you can trust to help talk you out of lapsing into stress eating, and when you're feeling tempted, give them a text or call. Journaling is a great way to help keep yourself on track, as well. Remember, one small stumble doesn't make the entire journey a failure, and there's nothing to say that you can't do this.