No matter how motivated you are to eat well, you might find yourself seeking solace from food. My friend Christine said a combination of work pressure and a challenging relationship recently led her to binge on sugary foods and gain 13 pounds in two months. Another friend, Bonnie Jean, said she used to reach for french fries or ice cream to temper uncomfortable emotions after a stressful or negative day.
Although the occasional use of food to cope with stress won’t destroy an otherwise balanced diet, eating too much too often can potentially exacerbate your negative mood, contributing to unhealthy weight gain and a greater risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and other diet-related conditions.
Here are three tips to help you handle stress eating.
1. Forget what you’ve been told.
Carbohydrate-rich foods are not the enemy. In fact, they provide glucose, the main source of energy for your brain and muscles. They also help your body create mood-boosting serotonin. But so many people cut down on—or cut out—carbohydrates. Too few in your diet can cause your body to break down the protein in foods and in your muscles to create glucose. This can cause fatigue and irritability and worsen stress. It’s ideal to get about half of your daily calories from carbohydrate-rich foods such as whole grains, fruits and legumes.
2. Read the fine print.
Shopping for nutrient-rich options while avoiding foods you tend to overeat can set you up for success at home and at work. When buying fruits and vegetables, choose mostly fresh options. If you can’t buy only fresh options, look for canned, dried or frozen produce made with little or no added sugar or fat. When buying grains, choose mostly whole grains, such as popcorn, whole-grain crackers, and whole-wheat breads and cereals as opposed to refined grains like potato chips, saltines and white bread.
On food packages, look for a “100 percent whole grain” stamp or a whole grain listed first in the ingredient list. Also, look for at least 3 grams of fiber per 100 calories. Create your own 200-calorie snack packs by combining mixed nuts, dried fruit and dark chocolate chips as a satisfying comfort food and vending machine alternative. Keep these and a few hard candies on hand for when a stress-induced craving strikes.
3. Forget the food.
Instead of seeking comfort in food, create a list of specific nonfood ways to quell stress. You can include a short walk or bike ride, jumping rope, jumping jacks, squats or crunches, walking up and down hallways or stairs, taking some deep breaths or meditating. Do them outdoors for a boost of vitamin D.
Add a short nap to your list, especially if you skimp on sleep. Routinely getting fewer than seven hours of sleep a night can wreak havoc with stress and appetite hormones and increase your risk of depression and weight gain. Having some toys on-hand to play with, such as a fidget spinner or stress ball, can also help. Keep your list accessible and tweak it often.