Eating Healthy During Stressful Times

Everyone experiences stress at one time or another. Our bodies even have built-in mechanisms for dealing with it, like turning to comforting activities, or reaching for our favorite foods. For many people, that means fatty or sweet things — foods that are packed full of energy that our bodies need for dealing with stressful situations. Before the widespread availability of high-fat, high-carbohydrate snacks, this instinct helped our ancestors stay fueled so they could fight or flee from danger.

Now that modern people generally experience more long-term, chronic stress and far fewer problems finding adequate food than our ancestors did, the desire for comfort foods is less helpful than it used to be. Choosing healthy options is not only better for you overall, it can actually improve the way your body deals with stress. Here are a few ways you can break the cycle of emotional eating:

Understand what’s happening.

When you experience a stressful situation, the desire to snack can be almost automatic. Before going for a quick, easy snack, pause a moment to interpret your feelings. Are you genuinely hungry? Often, the “hunger” we feel during stress isn’t genuine hunger, it’s the desire for the endorphin release triggered by comfort foods. If you’re not sure if you’re really hungry, drink a glass of water and wait twenty minutes. If you aren’t, the feeling will subside. If you are, you’ve given yourself some mental distance that will make it easier for you to make healthy choices.

Have a backup plan.

Stress eating can strike very suddenly, pushing us to choose the most convenient comfort foods we can. Before we know it, we’re pulling into a drive through or reaching for the cookie jar. Keeping healthy snacks on hand can help you put the brakes on this behavior. Try stashing a packet of plain roasted nuts, baby carrots, or an apple in your pocket or bag. It’ll give you a healthier option to reach for when the urge strikes.

Eat regular meals.

Under stress, many people tend to skip meals. We might be so busy putting out fires all around us that we don’t even remember to eat. Setting reminders for yourself to have regular, balanced meals can help keep you from stress-snacking by ensuring that you’re not desperately ravenous at the end of a long day. Your blood sugar and energy levels will also be more stable, lessening cravings for high-carbohydrate foods. Include sources of complex carbs — they’re one of the precursors to the stress-busting neurotransmitter serotonin.

Get enough vitamin C.

If you do need a snack, reach for some citrus. Studies on both animals and humans show that vitamin C plays a role in mitigating the body’s stress response — including short-term spikes in cortisol, one of the hormones responsible for stress-snacking.

Fool your taste buds.

What is it about your favorite comfort food that calls to you? Is it the crunch of chips? The sweetness of candy? Figure out what you usually crave, and find a healthy alternative to substitute. If it’s crunchy foods, celery or baby carrots might do the trick. If it’s sweetness, reach for fruit. If it’s creamy or fatty foods, try some unsalted nuts. They’ll let you satisfy that urge, but in a healthier way.

Out of sight, out of mind.

If you can, avoid keeping your favorite stress-snacks at home. If you have to, put them where they’re inconvenient for you. Stress eating often causes us to go for easy snacks, so making unhealthy things a little bit tougher to get to can give you the mental space you need to make a healthier choice.

Handling stress isn’t easy, but stress snacking is a short-term fix at best. Over time, emotional eating can actually alter your eating patterns and impair the way you deal with stressful situations. With these tips, you can turn things around and ensure that your body is getting all of the nutrients it needs to help you stay calm, collected, and ready for anything.