8 Strategies to Avoid Overeating When You are Stressed or Overwhelmed
Updated: Dec 9, 2021
The holidays can be a very stressful time of year (even more so in a pandemic!), and with all of the gatherings and social events going on around this time of year, we tend to gravitate towards food for comfort. So, why does that happen? Stress causes our cortisol (known as the stress hormone) levels to rise, and when our cortisol levels increase, so does our appetite, which tends to result in overeating. High cortisol levels from stress can increase cravings for fatty or sugary foods. Stress is also associated with an increase in hunger hormones, which can also cause cravings and unhealthy food choices.
But, there are ways to combat this and avoid overeating when your stress levels rise. Here are a few strategies to help prevent you from heading towards the kitchen when you are stressed or feeling overwhelmed:
Stop and check in with yourself
Try to understand why you want to eat. Is it actual physical hunger requiring nourishment, or is it emotional hunger due to a certain situation or simply boredom. Pausing and assessing the situation can help you understand what is compelling you to eat and even help you realize that you are not actually hungry, just reacting to a situation. But, if you are truly hungry, then go ahead, grab a healthy snack filled with protein, fibre and healthy fats.
Keep treats or high calorie/high sugar foods out of sight or out of your house altogether. Give yourself no other choice but to reach for something healthy and nutrient-dense, if you are truly hungry, by stocking your kitchen with foods high in protein, fibre, and healthy fats that will fill you up. Avoid refined foods and snacks that will leave you coming back for more in an hour or two. Instead, have healthy snacks like these Oatmeal Cranberry Pumpkin Seed Cookies on hand.
Maintaining proper hydration is not only good for your overall health, but may help prevent overeating related to stress. Dehydration can lead to changes in mood, attention and energy levels, which can also affect your eating habits. If stress is leading you to unhealthy food choices, stop and drink a glass of water first, and then decide if you are truly hungry or not.
Practise portion control
When you are stressed and truly physically hungry, do not eat foods out of their original containers or bags. This will likely lead to eating more than you intended, as this makes it difficult to keep track of how much you have eaten. Use plates/bowls to serve yourself a single portion and put the container/bag away.
Try to plan your meals for the week in advance, so when stress hits, you already have a plan for your daily meals, and trying to decide what to eat in the moment will not add to your stress. But, rather, a meal plan will ensure you are fueling your body with the healthy foods it needs.
Move your body
Physical activity can improve your mood and reduce stress, which may reduce stress eating leading to overeating. When stress leads you to the kitchen when you are not truly hungry, try to go for a walk, practise yoga, or do a quick cardio workout instead.
Pay attention to your hunger cues
Be present when you are eating. Concentrate only on your food, put away distractions such as your phone and turn off the television, and pay attention to feelings of hunger and fullness. Becoming more mindful when you are eating can help prevent overeating and make you more aware of your eating patterns and food intake.
Keep a food journal
Being mindful of what you are eating, how much and when, is easier if you write it down. This can also help pinpoint when cravings occur and if they are a result of a stressful situation or a skipped meal. Knowing your triggers will help you avoid overeating in the future.
These tips may all help when you feel your stress levels rising, however, if you are constantly feeling overwhelmed or stressed, and these strategies are not preventing you from overeating, it may be time to talk to a professional. Someone trained in this area can help you understand your feelings and unhealthy responses to stress, and get you the support you need to get through tough situations.