It happens to everyone: stress eating gets the better of us—what begins as reaching for a bite of comfort food turns into a total binge fest we regret only after it's too late. But emotional eating isn't some passing accident that happens to hone in on your hunger. Instead, the behavior is rooted in our biological makeup and can be explained by science. When you're stressed, your body is wired to crave food, especially the kind that isn't great for you (e.g., comfort foods high in fat and sugar).
When stress levels are high, so are the levels of the body's stress hormone cortisol. This spike of the hormone encourages us to seek unhealthy foods and also worsens our ability to properly deal with stress. If we continue to rely on bingeing on the bad stuff every time our hormone levels get out of whack from stress, we eventually lose our ability to properly deal with the stress without these detrimental behaviors—thus making them difficult habits to break. If you're looking to finally change your ways, a few conscious changes can reset how you deal with stress and get your body back on track.
Now, keep scrolling to study up on science-backed tips to kick your stress-eating habit, once and for all.
Being aware that you have a stress-eating habit is half the battle. Numerous studies propose mindful eating paired with stress reduction as a strategy to cut down on bingeing. In a study published in the Journal of Obesity, researchers at the University of California San Francisco found that mastering mindful eating and stress-reduction techniques helped to prevent weight gain without dieting.
Be mindful of your stress-eating tendencies, and keep a journal to record where, when, and why you find yourself succumbing to it. Keeping notes will help you identify patterns and eventually strategize a solution. "You're training the mind to notice, but to not automatically react based on habitual patterns—to not reach for a candy bar in response to feeling anger, for example," says UCSF researcher Jennifer Daubenmier, Ph.D. "If you can first recognize what you are feeling before you act, you have a greater chance of making a wiser decision." If you find yourself stress-eating every time you stay late at the office working, try switching up your environment or making time for a healthy dinner that will get you through your overtime hours. Knowing your triggers will allow you to avoid them.
Sub Something Else In
The next time you feel like reaching for food to relieve some of your stress, serve yourself a hot cup of tea instead. Not only will sipping on tea help to curb your cravings for a snack, but it will also directly improve how your body deals with stress. A study published in the journal Psychopharmacology found that tea drinkers de-stressed quicker than those who didn't drink tea. More specifically, individuals who drank black tea four times a day for six weeks eventually had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood following a stressful event. Incorporate black tea into your regular diet to keep stress levels low and prep your body for situations that might trigger stress.
Be Kind to Yourself
Better than the short-lived thrill that comes with snacking on something unhealthy, treating yourself to a little rest and relaxation will have more lasting effects. "Self-compassion can decrease stress eating," Minh-Hai Alex, a registered dietitian and founder of Mindful Nutrition in Seattle tells CNN. "When you're a kind, understanding friend to yourself, it's easier to resist the urge to try to disconnect through stress eating."
Surround Yourself With Healthy Foods
One swift change you can make to lessen the blow of bingeing if it occurs is swapping out your go-to snacks with healthier options. If you only keep nutritious snacks around—or better yet, food that has to be cooked and prepared before consuming (like fresh produce and raw meat)—you're less likely to mindlessly reach for something to snack on and overdo it.
Listen to Your Body
If you take care of your body, other self-care habits will follow suit. Regular exercise can help to balance cortisol levels that relieve stress and also keep you from overeating."Exercise has the ability to increase available fuel sources in the body that may signal to the brain: 'Here is the energy source I need, I don't need to replenish it through food,'" William H. Neumeier, Ph.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham tells Time. Neumeier penned a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports Exercise that found that people who exercise consume fewer calories than those who remain sedentary. If ever you find your stress levels beginning to spike, instead of seeking out a quick fix with a snack, take a time out to go on a walk or schedule in a fitness class to blow off some steam.
Now that you know what to do once the stress strikes, check out four science-backed ways to stop stressing out.