Our Experts, Your Health

4 ways to reduce stress eating

Why do you turn to chocolate when you are having a bad day? When life seems out of control why do you find yourself finishing an entire bag of chips with no recall of the event?  Your body actually craves rich foods when you experience stress, not just because the food tastes so good, but because the brain is triggered to release the hormone cortisol to energize you in life threatening situations.

Years ago when your ancestors encountered a lion or tiger the release of cortisol helped them run faster, focus better and hopefully remain safe. Today, this behavior is called the flight or fight response.   Once safe from danger the body learned to direct the excess calories to the abdomen for storage for future challenges.  But today, stresses are chronic and there is an excess of food that makes it way too easy to respond to primal cravings.  You don’t need to store calories when food is abundant. So what can you do?

  • Be aware. When you find yourself suddenly in front of the refrigerator seeking the perfect fatty, salty or sweet food, ask yourself, “Am I hungry? What am I hungry for? Do I feel hunger in my tummy or am I really hungry for some peace and quiet, recognition or support?” Ask yourself what you are emotionally feeling and identify the trigger. You can also say HALT. Ask yourself, “Am I Hungry, Anxious, Lonely or Tired”?
  • Eat more mindfully. Research states that if you eat more slowly, after 4 bites of a craved food such as chocolate, you will feel satisfied. Sit in a relaxed place, free from distractions, eat mindfully and slowly, pay attention to the taste, texture and sensation of your special food. Start by trying to eat one meal slower every day.
  • Learn strategies to reduce stress. Exercise, yoga, meditation, music, and hot baths all stimulate the pleasure areas in the brain that cause you to seek comfort foods. Finding healthier strategies to care for yourself reduces the guilt of stress eating. Also, putting your situation into perspective may decrease the psychological toll of stress.
  • Seek out professional help. Untreated chronic stress can contribute to the medical problems of depression and anxiety. If your stress is interfering with your daily activity, sleep or relationships, check with your primary care provider or a mental health expert for an assessment.

When experiencing challenges with my stress eating, I frequently turn to a wonderful resource Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat by Michelle May M.D.  She reminds you that if you love what you eat, you should act like it.  In choosing to eat mindfully you eat with intention, attention and a plan to feel better when you are finished eating than when you began.  If you are hungry for love, recognition and stress busters, you won’t find it in the refrigerator.

Diane Kersten, LCSW dkersten@billingsclinic.org

I am a licensed clinical social worker and have been with the Metabolism Center since its inception and over thirty years at the Billings Clinic. We all know that our busy lives, thoughts and feelings can interfere with our ability to maintain healthy lifestyle changes. I am here to help individuals look at their barriers and strengths in achieving wellness and learn new strategies for success. I meet with patients for individual counseling, coaching and group classes.

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