We are living under stressful times and this time of the year in particular, stress often is amplified.

The title of this blog was originally, “HOW TO HANDLE STRESS EATING DURING STRESSFUL TIMES.” Truth be told: we don’t ever “stop” stress eating, we learn to mange it. See tip 1 below for more. 

If you find yourself eating more from stress during this time of the year, here are 9 tips to help you find some peace and freedom this holiday season.

1.Normalize, honor and appreciate.

Eating, including “stress” eating is a form of “emotional” eating. Food and eating is so much more than just “nutrition.” The food we eat often tells a story and is layered with meaning, history and culture. Food has literally helped us survive throughout time. Food is something we turn towards or away from to soothe, comfort or numb ourselves. This form of coping to meet our emotional needs goes as far back as before we could even speak. Just after we were born, one of the first ways we connected to communicate with another human, was through nourishment. 

You are a human being and food works as one of many ways to cope with difficult emotions. Can you paradoxically give yourself permission to ‘use food to cope’ when sh*t hits the fan? What would that feel like? Emotional eating is a normal behavior. It’s not something we get rid of. We use food for both positive (eating cake at a Wedding) and negative emotions (stress eating) and our job is to step out of the blame and shame spiral, and step into a new way of reacting that involves awareness, curiosity and kindness. 

Emotional eating is normal but can become a problem if it’s our main habitual ‘go-to’ coping mechanism. It helps up until a point, and then, it becomes its own source of stress. You feel guilty and ashamed anytime you eat when you’re feeling stress. That guilt creates a stress response and keeps you trapped in the vicious emotional eating cycle: You feel guilty and ashamed for emotional eating, so you continue to emotionally eat. 

One of the best ways to end this vicious cycle is by normalizing “emotional/stress” eating with a generous dose of self-compassion. 

2. Pay attention to your food while eating.

It’s common for people to eat while doing other things, like working, driving, reading, or watching TV. If possible, notice when you are eating with distractions. This is not about removing all of the distractions and railing against yourself in judgement. It’s about slowing down and checking in while you eat with distractions. If you can pause to notice how the food tastes while eating in front of the TV. Pause to notice the smell, the texture, the aromas and the flavor of what you are eating. Make a mental note of how you are enjoying or not enjoying the food. Pausing allows us to assess the wisdom of our body that will tell us how full we are which will allow us to stop eating at comfortable level.

3. Eat regulary throughout the day.

Having regular meals and snacks spaced evenly throughout the day will help you to avoid getting too hungry and stressed. Breakfast within the first one or two hours will also protect and stabilize blood sugar. Skipping meals allows us to get way too hungry, and this most always leads to overeating later on as well as increasing the likelihood of stress eating. Avoid deprivation by eating foods that taste good and satisfy you. Give yourself unconditional permission to eat enough and enough of the foods you enjoy.

4. Reclaim your right to eat and enjoy food. 

You deserve to eat foods you like no matter what your size/shape/weight. You do not have to earn food. Just by being alive, your body needs to eat everyday. And, If you eat a limited diet of the same boring, bland and safe foods all day long, you might find yourself overeating at night on the foods you really wish you could eat. 

5. Neutralize food and eating.

 Lay down the food rules and try to move away from thinking food is either “good” or “bad.” This pattern of thinking stems from diet culture and only increases guilt and shame around our relationship to foods. When we feel bad about eating, guilty and shameful for ruining our diet, it causes the inner rebel to grow stronger and eat MORE (not less). So, check your judgements about the food. Are you should-ing on yourself? Do you tell yourself, “Potato chips aren’t healthy, I shouldn’t really eat them.” Maybe you can’t keep them at home because you fear you’ll eat the whole bag in one sitting. If they are around, they don’t last long. Get rid of them! Thinking of foods in this way will always keep you looped into the overeating cycle. Especially if you are gearing up for future deprivation, the next diet that starts on January 1st.  Any and all thoughts of future deprivation alway drive overeating. 

Also, remember the habituation effect. The more you are exposed and allowed to eat foods that were previously forbidden, the more you will get tired of these foods. They lose their charm. Without habituation, food remains exciting and scary, and the belief that we must be controlled remains locked in place. 

6. Feel the stress!

It’s seriously okay to use food to cope with intense feelings. We’ve established that food works. Truthfully, there is wisdom in your coping and you are *always* using food to cope with feelings for a very good reason. So, get curious about what this might be. Ask yourself what you are feeling when you want to eat when not physically hungry. Ask yourself, what you might need that food won’t really satisfy as effectively? Our ability to name our feelings, feel them, and do something about them is the practice of a lifetime. When you can name a feeling and what you need (that doesn’t involve food), you become an ally to yourself and your needs. You show up in a deeply profound way  take care of yourself. Healing from food and body struggles happens over time when we consistently show up in this way.

7. Schedule in some playtime. 

What are some activities that you truly enjoy (that have nothing to do with food/eating/trying to change your body)? Are you doing these things often enough in your life? Maybe it’s getting outside more to find some peace in nature. Maybe it’s writing, listening to music, dancing, yoga, painting, crafts. Maybe it’s spending time with friends who light you up. Maybe it’s getting some body work done, a reiki or massage session. Make a list of things you want to do more of, and make a google calendar invite with yourself.

8. Befriend your hungers. 

In its simplest form, intuitive eating can be described as eating when physically hungry and stopping when comfortable and satisfied. Getting to know and befriend your physical hunger is key. Diets teach us to suppress or control our hungers. Appetite suppressant pills for weight loss never work in the long run because they work against your natural rhythms. Your body is wise and a master at self-regulation. Your body (not your mind) is the ultimate portion controller as long as we listen to it and honor its signals. There are lots of distractions and reasons to eat that have nothing to do with physical hunger. Get curious about these in your environment. Experiment with eating according to your body clock and your natural rhythms. 

Get curious about the “mouth or symbolic” hungers that arise when your body doesn’t need food. If you want to eat and you know your body isn’t physically hungry for food, what might you be hungry for? What might you need that food will never satisfy? These mouth or symbolic cravings are invitations to go deeper. Whenever these cravings occur, you can explore the different hungers which can guide you to finding true nourishment. Remember, there is always wisdom in your coping with food. Our job is to not get caught in judgements, but rather, get curious about what these hungers represent and find meaning in purpose in these behaviors. 

9. Practice saying yes, no and not now.

When the holiday season is in full swing, it’s easy to get swept away with multiple invites to events and parties. Prioritize which ones are most important and avoid saying ‘Yes” when it’s really a ‘No,’ sometimes this can be a sneaky cause of stress eating. Get clear on your ‘yeses’ and ‘no’s’ to things. Check in with your body. Do you want to go to this event, or do you feel you “should” go? Remember, your time is yours, your body is yours, and you don’t have to do things that you don’t want to do. You can experiment with saying, yes, no and not now. Saying “not now” is a way you can tend to the part of you that fears deprivation, that doesn’t trust you to eat foods you enjoy because when you’ve said no in the past, it meant never. Saying ‘not now’ allows you to pause and decide later as well. You don’t have to say yes to the cake now, you could take it home and enjoy it later. Or, you don’t have to respond to the invite right now, sleep on it and check in with yourself in the morning. 

Are you ready to end the struggle? Curious about Intuitive Eating and want to *finally* break free?

Book a call with me to talk about how my 4 month Body Trust and Intuitive Eating Program will transform your life. Book a free call with me here

Much love,

Karen Louise, your Anti-diet Dietitian since 2005

Some tips in this blog were adapted and inspired from the book, “Reclaiming Body Trust” by Kinavey & Sturtevant

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Karen Louise Scheuner, MA, RDN

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