Eating Healthfully During Stressful Times

November 12, 2012

Eating Healthfully During Stressful Times

Normal everyday life is full of stressful situations. That’s not news, but it’s how you deal with these situations that may be helpful to many people. Bethany Thayer, MS, RD, director of Wellness Programs and Strategies at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association says that trying to eat yourself out of stress won’t work. She says that refined sugars and starches which are present in the majority of packaged snack foods do give you a boost, but only for a short while and then you feel worse.

So if you are waiting somewhere and you only have access to sugary, fatty, salty processed snacks then it is best that you do not eat. It is very common to want to eat at stressful times, you are not even hungry but the urge to eat is strong. Stress and tension can generate a need to eat. That’s because those feelings cause the body to produce a stress related hormone called cortisol. A study conducted by the University of Michigan increased the level of cortisol in non stressed adults and they ate more snacks.

Are you a Stress Eater?

This is when the spiral of decline begins. Because you have eaten more snacks you are less hungry at meal times, and then you go and eat more sugary or savory snacks and so on. It leads to you eating less healthy balanced meals and more ‘empty calorie’ snacks. An empty calorie is a description whereby the calories are produced by sugar which doesn’t give your body any of the nutrients or minerals it needs to remain healthy and able to deal with issues such as stress. It may also be that stress does increase your desire for sugary sweet foods. That’s why you go for donuts or cookies and not apples or other fruit. This just leads to people who eat more when stressed, to normally eat more ‘empty calories’ and become fatter.

If you think that you are a stress eater then you have to break the cycle. “You are stuck until you put your foot down.” says Susan Kleiner, PhD, RD. She also says, “The food drives your behavior and your behavior drives your food choice”. This is good advice and information coming from someone who is a specialist in nutrition and human performance and author of The Good Mood Diet.

If you are a stress eater then you will be snacking on unhealthy foods and missing out on meals that are balanced and healthy. Your eating habits have changed and it’s now time to “get back on the rails!” and break the stress eating cycle.

Ideas to break the Stress Eating Habits

There are many helpful ideas to get back to a healthy eating routine but initially you must get into the right frame of mind. You must prepare yourself beforehand. You know that stress will occur, ask yourself what you will do to keep emotions in balance and avoid eating sugary snacks. An easy first step is to ensure that you eat healthily every 4 or 5 hours.

Learn to recognize the signs and know what’s happening. When a stressful situation occurs note if you feel hungry. Is your urge to eat very strong? You will know when you last ate a meal so now you must evaluate your situation. Do you really need food or is this an emotional need? “Often, negative emotions trigger what feels like hunger but is really just a habitual response to eat to get rid of negative feelings,” says Elissa S. Epel, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

Recognize that you are human; we all have failings so have a contingency plan. Keep lots of fruit or healthy snacks available at all times, stress-eating urges normally come on suddenly. You don’t know when but you know that it will come, so be ready! Some dieticians say that a mix of complex carbohydrates and proteins is very good at a time like this and advocate foods like whole grain bread and cheese. Just having small packets of nuts or fruit mix, apples, or bananas can help settle your urge for unhealthy snacks. Another good thing to keep handy is a bar of dark chocolate, break off a small piece of dark chocolate, but don’t overdo it. A small piece is plenty.

Some people find that fruit can stave off the effects of a sweet tooth. If you like crunchy snacks like chips or pretzels then try substituting them with crunchy vegetables like carrots or celery. If a lot of your stressful moments occur at home then keep all the high calorie temptations out of sight. Make sure that you have to pass all the healthy options before you reach them. This also makes you aware of your eating routines and patterns. Do not walk to the food cupboard because you feel like it. Assess the situation you are in. Are you hungry? Are you stressed? Listen to the signals your body is sending and respond responsibly.

Some people advocate complex carbohydrates such as raisin bran, oatmeal, whole-grain cereals and breads, as well as brown rice, whole-grain pasta, pulses, fruits, vegetables and nonfat milk. They say these foods help your brain to produce the chemical serotonin, which helps you to feel good and thus counteracts stress. Small amounts of healthy fats from olives, avocadoes, seeds, fatty fish, and olive oil also help.

If you are driving think about your route, can you get to where you are going without going past the pizza parlor or bakery? If you are working avoid the coffee shop if possible. These things can help to make life a little easier and all it takes is a small amount of forethought.

In addition to all of the food related options it is better to introduce a substitute to food to avoid stress eating. If you feel a situation getting to you go for a walk, listen to music or just sit quietly. Other people brush their pets or just phone a friend. It’s all about getting something that works for you. Once you have an alternative that works you will feel more in control and reduce any urges to eat. You are now ready to identify what causes you stress and what you are going to do to improve your situation.

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