Strategies to Help Manage Stress Eating

As a registered dietitian, I understand that stress eating can be a real challenge, particularly during difficult times. It's important to recognize the triggers that lead to stress eating and develop strategies to overcome them. Here are some helpful tips to manage stress eating and enjoy a healthful diet even in challenging times.

First and foremost, it's crucial to build a good foundation by eating regular meals and snacks every 3-4 hours. This will help prepare your brain and body in advance to handle stress better. N each of the meals and snacks include some carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while limiting sugar. Carbohydrates help produce serotonin, which helps reduce the feelings stress.

It's also important to recognize what's happening and use the HALTS method. Are you Hungry, or are you Angry, Lonely, Tired or Stressed?  By using HALTS, you can become more mindful of your hunger and make more conscious decisions about what and when to eat.  Rate your hunger on a scale of 1-10, and ask yourself when you last ate. Negative emotions can trigger feelings of hunger, and the habitual response is to eat to feel better. However, eating is only a temporary distraction to the real issue which will likely still be there when you are done eating, often in addition to the feeling of guilt. If you are not actually hungry, try to find a different solution to the feeling you have.  Take a nap, talk to a friend, go for a walk or have a bath.

Mindfulness is another helpful aspect of managing stress eating. Take the time to use your senses and be mindful of the foods you choose to eat, paying attention to the taste, smell, and amount of food. Avoid eating in front of the TV or computer, eat from a plate, and sit down. This can help you be more present while eating and enjoy your food more.

Having a plan B is also critical when the stress eating urge hits. Prepare healthy snacks, such as trail mix pre-portioned into small packages, fruit, or energy bars like ReBar, Larabar, Elevate Me or Kind bars, to keep with you wherever you go. Additionally, you can fool yourself with substitute foods. If you crave a crunch, substitute with lower calorie options such as popcorn, crispy rice crackers, carrot sticks, or All Bran Buds. For sweet, replace it with fruit like frozen blueberries, dried fruit or frozen smoothie popsicles.

Another helpful strategy is to keep tempting foods out of sight and out of mind. Keep them in opaque containers in the freezer or back of the cupboard or leave them at the grocery store if you can't keep them at home. This will help reduce the temptation to indulge in unhealthy foods when stressed.

In addition to managing your diet, it's important to choose healthy stress-busting alternatives. Try going for a walk/run, listening to music, brushing your dog, meditation, or yoga. Take a deep breath and make the outbreath as long and slow as you can. Repeat this process and take the time to pause and wait it out. By saying you can have it later, you give yourself time for the impulse to pass.

Finally, it's essential to keep it real and recognize that it's normal to eat according to emotion, whether it's to celebrate or cope with feeling blue. However, it's important not to do it all the time. By maintaining a balance and being mindful of your emotions and hunger, you can manage stress eating and maintain a healthy diet.

The Bottom Line

Stress eating can be a real challenge, particularly during difficult times. However, with a few helpful strategies, such as building a good foundation, practicing mindfulness, having a plan B, and choosing healthy stress-busting alternatives, you can manage stress eating and maintain a healthful diet. Remember, your response to stress is critical to your brain and entire body's health, so take the time to develop a positive and mindful approach to managing stress.


Strategies to Help Manage Stress Eating Strategies to Help Manage Stress Eating Strategies to Help Manage Stress Eating Strategies to Help Manage Stress Eating