Stress eating is an emotional response that over time becomes automatic, says Anne Wolf, RD, a registered dietitian and researcher at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. "Every time we engage in a behavior, the more we do it, the more it becomes a pattern, then it becomes a habit," says Wolf. "To tackle that habit you're going to have to learn a new habit.”
So the next time stress threatens to send you to the kitchen or nearest vending machine, fight the urge. "First feel the sensation of stress. Stop, sit down, do some deep breathing, feel it, then just see what happens," says Wolf.
It's important to stop and think about that: Are you actually hungry, or just craving food in response to stress? "What typically will happen is that the feeling will dissipate and then you realize you can let go and you don't feel that hunger any more," says Wolf. This is the pattern you have to follow and repeat until it becomes the new habit.
Stress Eating: Finding Food Alternatives
Managing your stress in healthier ways can also help keep you from responding to it by eating. Try these ideas:
Exercise. Regular exercise can help prevent stress, and exercising when you are stressed can help manage the emotion and burn calories, not pack them in. Instead of running to the kitchen, lace up your shoes and head for a run, or walk, outside.
Give yourself a break. Whatever you're doing that's causing you stress, just step away from it for a while. If you're thinking about a situation that's creating anxiety, distract yourself with a more pleasant topic.
Think positive. Come up with a plan to resolve the situation that's bothering you. Nothing beats stress more than solving the problem that's causing it.
Relax. Meditate, visualize a peaceful place, or listen to some music to calm yourself down.
Do something fun. Take an impromptu shopping trip, play a game of golf or tennis, call a friend, or watch a movie that you enjoy.
It may take some time, but you can retrain yourself to eat when you're hungry, not stressed. Learning to tell the difference between the two is your first step. Then, find another outlet instead of using food to satisfy your emotional hunger.