I'm a stress eater. When life or work gets too much, I seek solace in a bag of Maltesers, late-night takeaways and bottles of red wine. I look to food as a reward for enduring off-the-scale stress levels. And it seems I'm not alone—according to a new Healthy for Life survey by the American Heart Association and Aramark, 47% of employed adults in the U.S. under the age of 40 admit to leaning on less-healthy food as coping mechanisms, such as indulging in unhealthy snacking or comfort food at lunch (think burgers, fried foods and pizza). The study also revealed that women are more susceptible to stress eating, with 40% admitting to eating less healthy lunches on stressful days compared with 32% of men.
With health on the mind, I called on a hypnotherapist, cardiologist and nutritionist to share their insights on why some of us stress eat and how we can avoid reaching for the cookie jar next time stress strikes.
Why Do We Stress Eat?
"Often when we stress eat it's about comfort," explains Chloe Brotheridge, a hypnotherapist coach at www.calmer-you.com, and author of The Anxiety Solution and Brave New Girl. "It might be an old pattern from childhood that we were given food when we were upset, so as adults we use food to calm us down or distract us from whatever we're feeling." On the flipside, some people distance themselves from food when stress hits. "I have noticed that some people use business to distract themselves from their feelings and sometimes forget to eat," she continues. "The adrenaline pumping around their bodies can suppress their appetite because they're in fight or flight mode and their body is gearing up to run away or fight, not digest food."
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, cardiologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital and American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women volunteer medical expert, agrees. "Stress eating is the act of eating, particularly when you’re not hungry, due to your feelings," she says. "Sometimes when we are stressed, we are less likely to pay attention to what we’re eating and more likely to just react."
11 Tips to Beat Stress Eating
Brotheridge suggests that before you reach for something to eat, ask yourself: how am I right now? Try to identify what emotion you're feeling.
"For example, is it actually loneliness you're feeling, rather than hunger? Then you can take action based on how you're feeling, such as reaching out to a friend," she says.
Jo Ann Carson, Ph.D., R.D.N., volunteer nutrition expert for the American Heart Association and Professor of Clinical Nutrition at the University of Texas at Southwestern Medical Center, also advises that the best way to tackle stress eating is to tackle your stress itself. She recommends the following:
- Regular exercise can be helpful in coping with stress in your life.
- Planning extra time in your day as free time may be helpful—for instance, plan to arrive for meetings 10 minutes early, then when something goes awry you still have a little extra time to get where you need to be.
- Participate in a stress management class—your worksite wellness program may offer one.
- Personally, coloring in an adult (or kids) coloring book takes my mind off stressful situations!
"While we cannot choose the stress that confronts us, we can manage how we deal with it," Dr. Steinbaum notes. "Part of making healthy choices and managing stress is about preparation and part is about the availability of healthy options. Because stress eating is driven at least in part by convenience, having healthy food options is ideal and that’s why Aramark is so focused on improving the healthfulness of the menus it serves in colleges and universities, hospital cafes, and workplace locations."
The key to avoiding stress eating is to know your triggers, says Dr. Steinbaum. And during stressful times, try to remember that healthy foods will help give you fuel to tackle stress. "So, look for plant-forward main dishes that will help put fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes at the heart of your plate," she says. "Also, lean on a lunch buddy at work who will encourage a healthy lifestyle, too."
Carson advises the following tips to swerve stress eating:
- In your office, keep healthy, non-perishable items available for a snack—perhaps pre-packaged natural nuts rather than mini candy bars. Carrot sticks can last all week in the office fridge.
- Take time to plan, so you have healthy, but hearty meals available. Try to eat regularly in response to hunger, rather than skipping meals and then overindulging.
- Practice mindfulness with food—take time to enjoy the flavor and texture of your favorite foods, eating until you are no longer hungry, but not “stuffed”
- When you are in a stressful situation and do eat, eat protein choices, rather than high carbohydrate options that may stimulate to eat more rather than satisfy you.
- In advance, make a list of five things you can do rather than eat when you are feeling stressed. Keep it on a card in your phone and use it when feeling stressed.