25 Mar

Bad habits, we’ve all got them. And much of the discussion from friends and clients last week was this one question: how do we break the habit of eating when we’re stressed?

This is a very common concern, and I feel like there’s probably a few different approaches depending on your personality. But let me give you a rundown of a few things to try.

1 – In a perfect world, we can alleviate your stress! What it is that is causing you to have the munchies? What are you reacting to? I think first you must accept that stress is not a real living thing, it’s only your reaction to situations in your life. So therefore you have complete control. This is an important realization.

So I think the first step regardless of the path you choose to change your habits is to identify the underlying cause. Just like I don’t recommend treating the symptom without attempting to treat the problem when it comes to health and fitness, the same applies here. I don’t want to just replace one habit it with another, I’d rather help you dig in and figure out what’s going on in your world that is triggering these emotional responses. Identifying that and then problem solving that we’ll make this a whole lot easier for you!  (More on stress in a future post!)

2 – When it comes to the actual habits, there’s a few approaches I’d recommend. Probably the easiest is a replacement tactic. Basically let’s substitute a more constructive habit for a destructive one. This way you can still react to the things in your world, but do it in a way that actually serves your best interest.

So I think the first step regardless of the path you choose to change your habits is to identify the underlying cause. Just like I don’t recommend treating the symptom without attempting to treat the problem when it comes to health and fitness, the same applies here.

What’s an example of this?

Instead of reaching for the chocolate donut, how about taking a short 5 minute walk? What If instead of curling up with that bag of potato chips, you called a friend? Or what if instead of scarfing down an entire pizza, you opened up YouTube and watch 5 minutes of cat videos?

I know that sounds silly, however, there are so many things you can do that will trigger a positive response in the brain, because that’s what your brain wants when you have a craving- a reward of some kind. You have to understand that food, especially sweets and cravings that you lean towards in times of stress, does trigger a chemical response in the brain. So the best habits to replace that with are going to be healthier ones that trigger a similar reaction. This is why sunshine, good friends, exercise, and cat videos are all potential solutions because they do trigger happy endorphins in the brain. (Science, ya’ll!)

3 – Another tactic to deal with these habits is the delay tactic. What I mean by that is allow yourself to appreciate your craving, and then promise yourself that if you still feel like eating it in 10 minutes, you’ll allow yourself to do so. This may feel like we’re not actually fixing the problem, but usually if you let 5 or 10 minutes pass, your intense emotional reaction has also died down as well. (Not sure how to distract yourself? See suggestion number 2!)

Most often after a delay you won’t actually feel like going through that box of cookies or whatever else it was that you had intended to jump into. The important and the tricky thing here is to acknowledge in the moments when you’re reacting to the stressful situation. Only by acknowledging your behavior and accepting it can you employ the delay tactic. And I’m a believer in being true to yourself; if you truly wait 10 minutes but you’re still having an intense craving and you still truly want whatever sweet treat or salty crunchy treats you have hankering for, go ahead and let yourself have a small bite. If you’re acting rationally at this point (the goal), I would expect your portions will be smaller in this instance as well. But you will most likely find that you don’t actually still crave whatever it was you were craving once you let the emotions die down a bit. Self-awareness for the win!

4 – The other way to manage stress related food cravings, depending on your personality, is to have a specific eating plan and patterns in place that don’t allow for wiggle room off plan. This is perhaps not my favorite approach, but it will also work. For example, we just went through a 4-week nutrition challenge where all of our participants were committed to eating four meals per day every four hours. With no snacks in between!

A lot of times a challenge, a competition, and a structured plan will help you stick to your guns when you feel a like having reaction to something. Committing to a plan, and then actually preparing for it (I mean having all your meals and snacks already ready and packed to go), will make it a lot easier to avoid the on-a-whim, grab-and-go habits we typically let ourselves fall into.

Many of our Challengers found that just by having a plan and some accountability to hold them to it they didn’t allow themselves that stress reaction. They felt it, but they already had a plan and didn’t give in to what they knew was an emotional response. Again this approach may be tougher unless you have somebody else holding you accountable. But if you have one of those all-or-nothing personalities, where moderation maybe isn’t your strongest attribute when it comes to will power, this may be a good approach for you.

There you have it! How to break stress responses and emotional eating habits in 4 easy steps.

  1. Acknowledge your stress and try to deal with the cause itself.
  2. Replace the destructive habit with a constructive one that triggers the same positive brain response.
  3. Delay the gratification you allow yourself, until you perhaps may not want it or at least you could have a rational quantity.
  4. Put yourself on a managed eating plan, and have someone hold you accountable to it so there’s no wiggle room for emotional and unplanned reactions.

That’s it! Have you tried any of these tactics before? I’d love to hear your results 🙂 And if you’re looking for more help to tackle this was a little accountability, let us know!

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