With so much going on at any moment, it’s no wonder most of us are reaching for a cookie (or 12). And while it’s totally normal to comfort any of those situations, it starts to become an issue when food for comfort becomes your go-to method for dealing with stress.
Krista King, RDN, Founder of Composed Nutrition, explains why this happens: “We may stress eat to manage our emotions. Food is something we do every day so it’s an easy thing to develop into using as a form of control or for comfort.”
Not surprisingly, it can be hard to break the cycle. So, today we’re sharing a few tried-and-true methods that’ll help get you there. Scroll on for the expert info, then consult your licensed healthcare professional to find a regime that works best for you.
12 ways to handle stress eating
1. determine triggers and make a plan
As with breaking any bad habit, it’s important to look at your triggers and the rewards to overcome these. “I encourage my clients to identify their cues and rewards. What exactly leads up to the stress eating and what reward are you getting from it,” explains King. “When we can take that cue and add in a new habit that gives us the same reward we’re looking for.”
From there, it’s all about figuring out a plan to deter those cravings. King says: “I will often say that when you notice yourself about to stress eat, stop and ask yourself: ‘What am I feeling? What do I need right now?’”
2. differentiate between stress eating and hunger
“Stress eating comes on suddenly, while physical hunger is gradual,” explains Lisa Richards, a certified nutrition coach. “Hunger caused by stress will cause you to crave specific foods while physical hunger can be satisfied with any food.” Knowing the difference between the two will help eliminate unnecessary guilt when you eat during the times that you’re actually hungry.
3. find healthy ways to cope
Ice cream might be super lovable, dependable and (duh) delicious in times of stress, but it might be time to find a new way to cope. “During times of stress, it may be beneficial to discover a new hobby or way that helps you deal with the stress in your life,” says Richards.
For this, the sky's the limit. “This could look like exercise, talking with a friend, going on a walk or journaling,” he adds. As an added benefit, you might make new friends and have loads of fun in the process!
4. don’t restrict too much
Restricting stress eating cravings too much could pull you into the vicious cycle of dieting, explains King. “The restriction of food puts our body into a state of stress,” she says. This is clearly the last place we want to be when we’re already feeling this way.
To combat this, the goal is to keep everything in moderation, King recommends.
5. go easy on caffeine
One area where most of us aren’t deprived is in the caffeine department. While you might rely on that second or third cup throughout the day, coffee can exacerbate anxiety. This leads to stress on stress.
Instead, opt for herbal tea as much as you can during your next mid-morning slump. “Peppermint, chamomile, ginger and fennel are very soothing and my favorite way to relax,” says Daily Harvest’s nutritionist, Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN.
6. stay balanced this holiday season
With the holidays coming up, many of us are hanging around the dessert table, going for seconds and thirds. This, coupled with the winter blues, is a recipe for snacking. “Without adequate vitamin D, we are more susceptible to low mood or even depression,” says Shapiro. “For those who use food as a form of comfort may turn to stress eating more in the winter months.”
Take comfort in knowing that you can still enjoy some of your favorite foods during this time. Simply limit the number of cocktails you have and switch to low-calorie ones, enjoy sweets in moderation and make healthy food swaps.
7. snack smart
If snacking is going to happen, consider snacking smart. “For quick snacks, popcorn is great as you can eat a lot without feeling guilty and it contains fiber too,” says Shapiro. “Pistachios are another great recommendation since they require you to use your hands and a serving is 49 pieces so that should keep you busy for a while!”
Another great way to satisfy your sweet tooth — and your collagen intake to boot! — is by reaching for a Vital Proteins Collagen Bars™. They come in several delicious flavors, such as Chocolate Almond Sea Salt, Peanut Butter Chocolate and Mixed Berry, among other offerings.
8. get active
While your idea of exercise might differ from person to person, staying in motion (however that looks like for you) is important. “Getting in regular physical activity helps boost mood and maintain weight/fitness levels," explains Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN Nutrition Advisor from Smart Healthy Living.
9. don’t skip meals
Skipping meals is more than just a foreign concept to some — it can also cause a drop in your blood sugar levels. From there, this can result in unintentional overeating.
Aim to eat every three to four hours while awake. “If you have regular meals, this can help prevent stress snacking in between meals,” says Kostro Miller.
10. focus on self-care
“When we are properly taking care of ourselves, we are more equipped to handle a stressful situation,” says Hillary Cecere, MS, RDN, Registered Dietitian for Eat Clean Bro. This means getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and finding healthy ways to deal with stress, such as working out regularly or even talking to a therapist.
Drinking enough water is a big one since Kostro Miller says that we sometimes mistake thirst for hunger: “Water not only hydrates you, but it also can fill up your stomach and keep hunger away for a little while.”
11. add more whole foods to your diet
Gain the upper hand in your hunger by choosing the right foods. “We get fiber from fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans/legumes and nuts/seeds,” explains Kostro Miller. For protein, choose healthy and/or lean proteins from beans/legumes, low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese, nuts, seeds, lean poultry, shrimp, fatty fish, eggs and nut butter.
When it comes to adding more fats into your diet, opt for healthy fats from avocado, olive oil, nuts, seeds and fatty fish instead.
12. don’t add more stress to stress eating
The most important takeaway from all of this is that you’re not a bad person for stress eating. We all do it from time to time — we’re human, after all. With this, King says that it’s important to bring awareness to stress eating by understanding why it’s happening, your intention behind it and what you are using it for.
“Sometimes we do use food for reward and comfort. But if it’s something we’re constantly using as a form of distraction or to avoid unwanted emotions then it’s something to dig into a little bit," she says.