Solutions for stress eating: Get better at saying “No, thank you” to ice cream, Cheetos, and Pop-Tarts. Use these unexpected methods to stop the cycle of emotional eating. By Julia Malacoff, Pn1, CPT
More than 60 percent of our incoming clients say they struggle with emotional or stress eating.
And that was before the global pandemic.
Whether out of stress, anxiety, sadness, boredom, or grief, it’s understandable why we turn to food for comfort.
Food offers a pretty great—if very temporary—solution to our suffering.
Eating feels good.
It sets off a cascade of pleasurable sensations that make it easier to forget about uncomfortable emotional experiences.
Think of it this way: When you stress eat, you’re using food to solve a problem. Only it’s a problem that food can’t solve.
What’s more, most people who experience emotional eating feel trapped and guilty afterward, which just perpetuates the behavior.
So whether you’re a coach trying to help clients with their stress eating—or you’re looking for solutions for yourself—we have three not-so-obvious strategies that might help.
Not just for right now but long after this crisis is over, too.
3 unexpected strategies for dealing with stress eating.
One of the following ideas might resonate with you more than the others. But we encourage you (or your clients) to try all of them.
Each does something crucial and different:
#1 develops awareness around what triggers your overeating
#2 provides tools to help when your triggers are activated
#3 helps you understand that your behavior around food doesn’t define you as a person
The result: A variety of methods that work together to tackle a complex problem. And hopefully, help put you back in the driver’s seat when you feel out of control.
Strategy #1: Go ahead and overeat.
Our brains like patterns.
Many of our thoughts, emotions, and actions actually happen on autopilot. They’re parts of sequences our brains know well from years of practice. Those sequences just need triggers in order to take place.
In the presence of a trigger, your brain dictates a given behavior—like stress eating—without requiring any conscious decision-making on your part. (Food cravings also work the same way.)
The physical sensation of hunger is the most obvious trigger. That stomach-grumbling, slightly shaky, even-Brussels-sprouts-sound-good sensation is one you can trust to tell you it’s time to eat.
But stress eating usually comes after other types of triggers, like certain sights, smells, people, and emotions.
For example, you might find yourself hitting the Girl Scout Cookies hard every Saturday afternoon. You’re always left wondering how it happened, and why you feel so crappy about it.
The process is so automatic you often don’t have any idea what’s triggering it.
But if you really started paying close attention, you might have an epiphany: It’s also the time you talk to your mom every week.
So here’s a crazy idea: Give yourself permission to overeat.
It’s going to feel counterintuitive at first.
But view it as a learning experience—a necessary step in the process. (Plus, there are worse ways to learn.)
How to try it
Next time you get the urge to stress eat, treat it as an experiment.
Use our Behavior Awareness worksheet to document what happens and how you feel before, during, and after.
Important note: This is a judgement-free zone.
This process will help you identify triggers, but it’ll also start removing—or at least, lessening—any guilt or shame you feel around overeating.
Often, if you’re “allowed” to overeat, it suddenly doesn’t feel as urgent.
When it’s no longer forbidden, the intense craving for a whole box of cookies sometimes turns into a more manageable desire for just one or two.
So try to observe your experience as neutrally as possible. If you’re having trouble, imagine you’re a scientist collecting data on someone else.
Afterward, review the worksheet. What do you notice?
Are there any patterns or ‘aha’ moments that stick out to you?
Maybe you notice you head for the snack cupboard right after getting off a stressful, two-hour-long conference call.
And you realize you’ve been doing that almost every day for… weeks.
It’s possible you’ll have to do this experiment a few times before the trigger(s) becomes obvious. That’s okay.
If this happens, do your best not to obsess about the decision to eat or not eat.
Instead, try to focus on learning more about your own behavior, and keep your worksheet notes handy so you can add to them as needed.
Once you’re aware of the trigger, decide what to do about it.
If it’s something you can avoid, great. (If the smell of baking cookies is too much for you to handle, you could take a break from baking for a while.)
If your trigger isn’t something you can change or avoid, sometimes just being aware that you’re experiencing a trigger can help.
That’ll signal it’s time for strategy #2.
Strategy #2: Create a nourishment menu.
PN Master Coach Jen Cooper uses a Precision Nutrition Coaching technique to help her clients, and even herself, deal with stress eating:
Pick a thing before the thing.
That might sound odd, but do just that: Pick an action (a thing) that you’ll always do before you engage in stress eating (the other thing).
Ideally, it’s multiple actions—like a “menu” of choices for yourself.
These actions disrupt the trigger/behavior cycle. But there’s more to it than that.
“I call it the nourishment menu because we’re deprived of so many things that nourish us on many different levels right now,” says Cooper.
Examples: as much fresh air as we want, social interaction, free movement.
“Food is an easy way to fill some of these voids we’re feeling,” she says. “That’s why it’s important to have ideas of things that can nourish you in other ways.”
For example, before deciding to eat you could:
Take three deep breaths
Drink a big glass of water
Mentally check for signs of physical hunger
Play with your pet for five minutes
Do some quick stretches
Listen to a favorite song or a few minutes of a podcast
Go for a short walk
Spend a few minutes on housework (like folding your clothes or organizing your desk)
The most effective nourishment menus include actions that line up with your goals and values. They’ll be more likely to offer the same feeling of relief you were hoping—consciously or not—to get from food.
For example, if you deeply value your close friendships, calling or texting a friend could be one of your menu options.
How to try it
You might be thinking, ‘Sure, that sounds nice… but I won’t actually do it.’
And it’s true: The trick with the nourishment menu is that you actually have to use it.
Here are three ideas that might help.
1. Make it as easy as possible on yourself.
Ensure the items on your nourishment menu feel doable and reasonable.
At maximum, they should take you 15 minutes to complete. For instance, a quick journaling session could qualify here.
Ideally, you want to have one or two options that’ll take a minute or less. Like writing down three emotions you’re feeling in the moment (this emotion word wheel might spark some ideas), or giving your partner a hug.
You’ll also want to keep any materials you’ll need handy.
If drinking a glass of water before eating is on your menu, always keep it at your desk (or wherever you are).
If you’re supposed to write something down before you head for the pantry, keep a notepad and pen on your kitchen counter.
If you want to eat a serving of vegetables before having any other type of snack, keep washed, cut-up options at eye-level in your fridge. (Learn more smart strategies for setting up your kitchen.)
2. Put your nourishment menu somewhere visible.
Post it on your fridge, kitchen cabinet, or anywhere else you’re likely to see it before eating. You’re less likely to ignore it if you can see it.
And if you ignore it occasionally, it’s not such a big deal. The key is to get a little bit better over time, not be perfect.
So if you use the nourishment menu once every third time you want to stress eat, you’re still making progress.
For the record, just doing one action from the menu is often enough to break the cycle, Cooper says.
You don’t always have to work your way through the whole list. But it’s good to have multiple actions to choose from for variety.
And if you try a couple actions and still want to eat? That’ll happen.
But remember: You’ve already done some really good things for yourself in the process. So go ahead and have that snack.
Cooper’s advice if you go that route: Treat it like a meal.
Portion out the amount you want to eat in a bowl or on a plate, sit down at a table without distractions, and enjoy it slowly and mindfully.
3. Keep track of how often you use your nourishment menu.
Plus, record what happens when you do (on your phone or a Post-It note).
Let’s say over the course of a day, you get the urge to snack four times.
Twice, you use your nourishment menu and avoid eating.
Once, you use the nourishment menu and end up eating something slowly and mindfully.
Another time, you skip the menu altogether and end up overeating.
Why do this?
“At the end of the day, you can look back and see which actions helped you stop the stress eating cycle,” Cooper explains.
Then, you can start proactively taking those actions regularly throughout your day. This is how you make progress.
Strategy #3: Take a self-compassionate approach (for a change).
Nothing about this pandemic situation is normal.
It makes sense you might not be eating (or exercising, or working, or living) the way you normally do.
But feeling bad about being out of your routine can make stress eating worse. (If you need help getting back into a health and fitness routine, check out: What to do when staying in shape feels harder than ever.)
So, in many ways, now’s the perfect time to start practicing self-compassion.
Self-compassion is an attitude of generosity, honesty, and kindness towards yourself.
If that’s feeling a little woo-woo for you, bear with us for a second.
Lots of people who deal with stress eating have negative self-talk running through their heads before, during, and afterward.
Some of this might sound familiar:
“I guess I’m going to hit up my snack stash again now, like I always do. Why can’t I ever learn?”
“Ugh, I’m such an idiot for doing this. Again.”
“I just had to finish the ice cream, didn’t I? Nice work, me.”
But here’s something surprising: “There’s evidence that negative self-talk, the opposite of self-compassion, signals your brain to release dopamine,” says Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD, director of curriculum for Precision Nutrition.
“Dopamine is involved in habit formation and the addiction pathway. So that’s not great. As a result, the cycle of negative self-talk, stress eating, and feeling bad about it can become a never-ending loop.”
(Are you noticing a theme with how our brains work?)
Self-compassion is a tool that can help interrupt that cycle.
And no, we’re not trying to trick you into joining some commune where we spend our time holding hands and being nice to ourselves (although, would that really be so bad…?).
There’s research to support this approach.
What do these studies suggest? That practicing self-compassion can help reduce the “screw it” feeling that happens right before a person starts emotional eating.1,2
So yeah, you can work on your stress eating by being nice to yourself.
Importantly, self-compassion doesn’t mean giving yourself a free pass to eat whatever you want.
Self-compassion is…Self-compassion is not…Giving yourself a breakGiving yourself a permanent “get out of jail free” cardBeing honest and seeing the big pictureIgnoring your problemsBeing kind to yourselfLetting yourself off the hookHow to try it
So what does self-compassion look like in practice?
There are three main elements to focus on:
Mindfulness: This is when you’re aware of what you’re doing, thinking, feeling and experiencing, but you’re not judging yourself for it.
Common humanity: Acknowledging that you’re not alone—that everyone goes through what you’re dealing with at some point.
Self-kindness: Being generous and decent to yourself.
When you’re about to stress eat, try to interrupt the cycle with some self-compassion and kindness.
Here’s what that might look like:
Mindfulness: “I’m so anxious being cooped up in my house right now. And those chips are really calling my name…”
Common humanity: “That’s okay. Plenty of people have a hard time saying ‘no’ to chips.”
Self-kindness: “Take a deep breath. Whether or not I choose to eat right now, it’s going to be okay.”
It works during and after stress eating, too:
Mindfulness: “I’m feeling pretty guilty right now. This sucks.”
Common humanity: “A lot of people are probably feeling this way right now that we’re all spending more time at home.”
Self-kindness: “Alright, shake it off! So you ate some chips. It happens. That doesn’t mean anything about who you are deep down.”
A key distinction here is that self-compassion isn’t an excuse to stress eat. Its purpose is to help remove some of the guilt you might feel about stress eating.
That’s important, since that guilt can just lead to more overeating.
So give it a try. Even if it feels a little squishy at first, it might just be the thing that works.
It’s totally normal to be feeling all the feelings right now.
And remember: It’s understandable to look to food to deal with those feelings.
Food provides us with joy, comfort, and sustenance.
We associate it with good memories, big life moments, and meals shared with loved ones.
We might even use food to help define ourselves—in our jobs, cultures, and even relationships.
But the more we use food to bury how we feel, the worse those uncomfortable feelings get.
It’s like Robert Frost wrote: “The best way out is always through.”
Is it the easiest path? No.
But it’s the only one that will provide relief. And that’s something we could all use more of right now.
Our brains (and lives, for that matter) tend to work in cycles.
But the stress eating cycle? It’s one you can opt out of.