Nutrition

Stress Eating: 4 Practical Solutions

Megan Dahlman
September 17, 2018

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Stress Eating


​Do you stress eat?

Ok, that's kind of a rhetorical question because I know the answer is yes. I think we all do, in one form or another. 

Let's see if you can follow along with this scenario:

Your husband is out of town on a work trip for the week. You're solo parenting, and your kids know it. So they amp it up. They push every button you have, decide that they need everything right now!, and hurl every single instruction you give them right back at you with a giant defiant NO! 

You're done. "I can't do this anymore!" You can't physically escape, because that would be neglect, but you're starting to actually contemplate it. 

Instead, you make your way to the pantry. While the chaos and the mayhem is escalating behind you - and yes, you can see all of it because you have eyes in the back of your head - you rip open the bag of chips and just start eating. Oh and look, there's some old Halloween candy, too. And why not dig into the leftover loaf of bread from lasagna night?!

You're escaping, but in a different way. You're stress eating.   

Or here's another common situation:

You're at work and tasks are starting to pile up. You're feeling pressured to accomplish more than one person should ever be expected to do. On top of it all, you know you're going to be late to pick the kids up, and you have no clue what to make for dinner.

Now that you think of it, you really would rather not make dinner at all. And in fact, on the way home you're going to just swing through Starbucks and get a larger size of "your drink" because it's been a rough day and it's going to make you feel better. 

You think you deserve it. You're stress drinking. 

You know it's not ok. 

Whether you honestly know that turning to food when you're stressed out is not a good choice, or you need someone to wake you up to this fact, you need to get a handle on it. Eating under stress can completely sabotage any forward movement toward your physical goals, not to mention your emotional and spiritual health, too. 

Let's be clear: to experience body composition change (i.e. lose body fat) it's absolutely necessary to control the amount that you splurge. The best changes occur when you're eating healthy 90% of the time, and only splurging about 10% of the time. 

To better understand what that looks like, it means that if you eat 4-5 meals per day for seven days, you only deviate from healthy eating habits on 3 or 4 occasions per week. That's not very much! So, if you're diving into unhealthy foods on a daily basis due to stress, while also enjoying social dining experiences, a dessert here and there, and maybe even an adult beverage....you can see how these splurges quickly add up!

Even if you don't have any body composition goals and would like to just maintain where you're at physically, you should still be eating on point about 80% of the time. Any more splurges than that and you'll start digressing. 


It's a double whammy. 

Now here's how stress eating really gets you: Not only are you responding to your stress by making bad food choices, let's not forget the fact that your body is enduring a stress load that has its own negative physical effects.

When our body perceives stress, it signals our adrenal glands to produce more stress hormones...cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones help with the "fight or flight" response, or your sympathetic nervous system

These hormones are good and serve an important purpose, but only if they're activated for short periods of time, and then return to normal non-stress levels. However, many of us live in a state of constant stress, so our sympathetic nervous system is always being triggered, and our body's stress hormone levels are elevated to such a degree that it begins to affect our health. 

(Perhaps you've heard of adrenal fatigue? This is when you're adrenal glands have been completely overworked due to chronic stress and they're no longer functioning normally.)

It's extremely challenging to lose body fat when your body is under chronic stress and has elevated levels of these stress hormones. Add to it stress eating, and you've got a really bad environment for a healthy, lean body. 

What to do.

Ok, I know that you know all this. You don't necessarily need to be reminded that stress eating is bad for you, and it's sabotaging your efforts. (Captain Obvious, here.) But what can you do about it? 

How do you stop turning toward food for comfort?

Let's work through this. Buckle up. 

1. First, identify your stressful triggers. What tips you off? What specific situations trigger that feeling of being overwhelmed and stressed out? 

Write them down so you can see it clearly. 

It could be kids whining, a work crises, a bad relationship, moving, a messy house, a newborn, an illness. It could be several things, but you need to clearly identify them.  


2. Second, take a look at those scenarios and see if you can change them at all. I know it's sounds stupid, but there have been times that I've sulked on the couch with a glass of wine because I'm stressed out about a messy house. I needed someone to ask me, "And how's that wine fixing your problem? Just get up and do something about it!" 

If I just go make my bed and do a couple dishes, it changes everything! Crisis averted. But in the middle of my stress, I can’t logically figure that out. It’s helpful to know ahead of time (by identifying my triggers) that having a full sink and a messy bed makes me feel stressed.
 
But as we all know, you probably have stressful scenarios that you can’t change. So we need to change the little ones that we do have control over and have strategies for handling the big ones without turning to food. 

Read on...

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​3. Third, when you have your triggers really identified, come up with three non-food solutions to deal with these stressful triggers. Write down three options that you know would be relaxing and redirecting, and would actually make sense for you. You need to navigate yourself to these three solutions first before you reach for food.

(You can even try a mental bargaining game. Tell yourself you're not going to eat the cupcake "yet"...instead, you're going to try these other strategies first and see if it still sounds appealing. Often, when we tell ourselves the forceful "no", we'll immediately push back so hard it's impossible to resist.)

Here are some non-food ideas for coping with your stress:

  • go for a walk (getting outside for a leisurely stroll has been shown to physically reduce stress hormone levels!)
  • foam roll, stretch or do a gentle yoga flow
  • listen to good music (I find that worship music is especially soothing - it gets my eyes off of me and my problems!) 
  • move away from the trigger (kids??) and pray 
  • bookmark a Psalms that is particularly soothing for your soul
  • text or call a friend
  • take a bath 
  • read a book
  • practice deep belly breathing (like walking outside, diaphragmatic breathing has also been shown to deactivate your sympathetic nervous system) 
  • take a nap


These are just examples that work for me and might work for you, too. But you need to write down three options that you know would be relaxing and make sense for you. Navigate yourself to these three solutions FIRST, before you reach for food. 

4. Finally, understand that anytime you turn to food to soothe your soul, you will NEVER be fully comforted and satisfied. It will always leave you empty and miserable and searching for more. You might enjoy momentary comfort and delight in the flavors of that food, but ultimately you'll still feel distraught.

It seems mean and unfair that a bag of Oreos won't fix our feelings and make the stress go away, but it's no wonder. We're told over and over again in Scripture where we should be turning for comfort: 

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction..." 2 Corinthians 1:3-4a

"For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things." Psalm 107:9

"He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need." Acts 17:25


In stressful moments, when we continually look to food as our ultimate source of comfort instead of God, we're committing idolatry. I know this sounds harsh, but you might need to hear it. If you're hoping that food (or drink) will offer you as much comfort, peace and relief as God Himself, then you are turning that comfort food into an idol. 

In the moment, it's easy to think "I don't care...whatever. I have tangible food here in my hands, and it's going to make me feel better, and I can't hear God right now anyway." 

But this is the awfully sad part about that: "Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God's love for them." Jonah 2:8

I don't know about you, but I never, ever want to be in a position where I'm turning away from God's love for me. If anything, i want to always be running towards it!

It's not a mean or harsh thing at all if God is asking us to tear down an idol like food in our life, because He knows it's preventing us from experiencing His full and abundant love! 

It's going to take practice. 

Just like any habit formation, conquering your stress eating tendencies will take practice. You will have to encounter your stress triggers over and over again, constantly use your non-food coping mechanisms, and build up more willpower in this arena. 

Don't expect perfection. I certainly still fail at this, sometimes. But if you can face even just one typical stress eating moment and navigate away from food and toward God instead, then you're doing much better, my friend. 
​​

"They cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress.
He made the storm be still,
    and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad that the waters were quiet,
    and
he brought them to their desired haven.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wondrous works to the children of man!"

Psalm 107:28-31

don't do this alone!

Yes, putting good eating and exercise habits into place can be very challenging.
​But it doesn't have to be! 
Can you imagine what it would feel like to have a good relationship with food, to confidently exercise regularly, and to be happy in your body? It feels amazing!
Learn more about the Strong Mommas Coaching Program and how you can completely transform your lifestyle and feel incredible in your body without selling your soul in the process. 
Try it out for a full month for just $1! Click here now!

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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
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