Comfort eating during times of stress can be a serious culprit in weight gain. The trick is not to punish yourself for anxious eating, but rather to manage stress and therefore manage your weight better. Managing stress is a combination of eating the right foods to begin with, exercising to release muscle tension and endorphins, and practicing daily relaxation techniques. Stress management that incorporates a mind/body approach is not only beneficial to your health, but will promote a slimmer you. But, before we get into how you can manage stress, let’s take a look at what happens within your body to set off the cycle in the first place.
What triggers anxious eating?
When we become angry or stressed, the brain produces two hormones designed to arouse a fight-or-flight response in our bodies: cortisol and adrenaline. The first increases the heart and respiratory rates and gets our muscles tensed and ready to act. The second makes us more alert and focused. To our prehistoric predecessors this was a vital life-saving response to danger. Today, with the absence of dinosaurs and saber tooth tigers, we react to modern day stressors: pressures at work, traffic jams, even a crying baby with the release of these same hormones. Yet, we have no outlet for that stress – there’s no saber tooth tiger to outrun and so we hold on to stress – and yet our bodies feel as though we’ve run a mile and therefore the body reacts by thinking that it urgently needs to refuel. You might say we develop an artificial hunger in response to these hormones and, so, we grab for instant energy from the nearest vending machine, snack drawer or drive-up window. So, if this type of urgent eating is a natural response to stress, what can we do to avoid it? The answer: reduce stress, learn to manage your response to it and prepare your body so that it’s able to take stress in stride or release it.
Your body’s reaction to stress starts with your mind. If you perceive something as a stressor, then the body will react accordingly. In order to stop your stress reaction in its tracks, you need to relax. Take some deep breaths, learn to bounce with the unexpected, and take life less seriously. Don’t sit around stewing; let it go. Write your thoughts down in a journal and let anxieties fade away. If you can’t get your mind off a stressful situation, then get moving – go for a walk or stretch it out. If nothing else, moving serves as a distraction that can diffuse the stress. And, whatever you do, be sure to bypass the vending machine!
Practicing relaxation techniques can better prepare you to have a calmer reaction next time:
- Try deep breathing exercises. Close your eyes, then consciously relax your body and focus on your breath. While breathing deeply, remove all other thoughts from your mind. Do this for 5 to 15 minutes each day.
- Use audio discs or tapes with guided relaxation exercises. Check your local library or bookstore and relax to the soothing sounds.
- Get rid of negative thoughts. One technique is to place a rubber band loosely around your wrist. Then, whenever you have a negative thought, snap it. This technique will help you become more aware of negative thoughts and can put you on the path to a more positive attitude.
- Use affirmations. Every time you have a negative or stressful thought repeat a positive affirmation such as: I choose to release all stress and build a happy, healthy mind and body.
Getting yourself into a regular exercise routine each day works to reduce stress and helps to control blood sugar. You needn’t spend hours at the gym. A brisk twenty-minute walk, or twenty-minutes spent doing yoga, Pilates, t’ai chi, or even climbing stairs can bolster your defenses against stress.
- T’ai chi is done by people of all ages in China and restores a youthful, rejuvenating energy while allowing your mind to learn to let go of frustrations – so that you develop a more relaxed and happier outlook on life.
- Pilates works along with your breathing to release unwanted tension from the body and help alleviate stress. Besides being better able to cope with everyday stresses, you’ll gain greater freedom of movement and enhance your circulatory and lymphatic system through Pilates exercise three to five times a week.
Why not organize a lunchtime or after-work exercise group, go walking at lunch or stop by the gym before heading home. Remember, exercise releases endorphins – the body’s feel-good hormone – so you can feel good without the guilt of stress eating.
Snacks and Foods that Smack of Healthy
Even on a stress-free day, we all need to stop for a quick snack, from time to time, while at work or at home. So, why not keep healthy snacks on hand. Eaten in moderation, the following snacks won’t pack on the pounds:
- Sliced red peppers
- Hard-boiled egg
- Small, sugar-free yogurt
- Crunchy carrots or celery
- Almonds or walnuts
Keep them handy, so, when the urge to munch strikes, you’ll walk past the vending machine and steer clear of drive-up windows. You’ll feel so much better and can skip the guilt.
Also, when it comes to your daily meals, remember to incorporate foods that actually have a beneficial, even calming effect:
- herbal teas instead of caffeinated beverages
- fresh, unprocessed foods
- whole-grain foods that give you long-lasting energy
Above all, avoid foods that release sugar rapidly into the bloodstream like highly-processed foods made with white, refined sugars and starches (pasta, white rice, potatoes, and white bread). Avoid sweets that increase the amount of insulin in your body – the combination of cortisol from stress and elevated insulin can create an insatiable appetite for carbohydrates and fat. Thus, grabbing for that candy bar in response to a stress-filled day can actually initiate a cycle of carb binging.
Choosing foods that will nourish your body, feed your cells and help rid your body of toxins is your best defense against stress and anxious eating.