Stop Stress Eating in its Tracks
It’s no surprise that we crave sweets when we’re stressed out. Under times of duress, cortisol hormone levels are elevated, and our brains know that a shot of sugar is a shortcut to a release of serotonin, which helps us feel happy, calm, and relaxed. Our instinct reaches for the quickest path to relief – something sweet – and it works for a few moments. But then, as we’ve all experienced, that feeling is fleeting, and the cycle repeats itself.
Do you know the differences between emotional and physical hunger? It’s easy to get flustered in times of chaos or uncertainty, and turn to a favorite meal or comfort food to bridge the gap between emotions. Or, to take a break from feeling them. But, if you’re working hard on creating healthy habits, this can be a dangerous trap. After all, another stressful situation is just around the corner, and if eating is our coping mechanism, well, those two things just aren’t very compatible.
You can tell the difference between emotional and physical hunger, and stop stress eating in its tracks.
Emotional hunger feels urgent, while physical hunger is more gradual.
I suddenly remembered the snack bar in my purse and grabbed it instinctively. In cases of physical hunger, I would notice that I was hungry and be aware that I needed to stop and have a snack in the near future. With emotional hunger, the need to eat something comes on suddenly and feels urgent. Pause before you reach for that snack, and gauge your hunger on a scale of one to ten. If you’re not actually hungry, congratulate yourself for stopping yourself in your tracks, and find a distraction elsewhere.
Emotional hunger is specific, while physical hunger is flexible.
I often tell my kids that if they’re not hungry for an apple or carrot sticks, they’re not hungry. Physical hunger should be satisfied with a variety of options, because the goal is to end the hunger, not soothe emotions. If you’re craving something specific and can accept no substitutes, there’s a good chance you’re facing emotional hunger. Find another way to soothe yourself.
Emotional hunger ignores body signals, but physical hunger notices them.
All of us struggle with portion sizes at times, but it’s a lot easier to blow right past fullness and stuff ourselves with food when we’re eating emotionally. Physical hunger is more likely to recognize – and respond to – signals that we’re no longer hungry and that the meal did its job. Eat slowly and pay attention to your satiety level, and remember that you can always have more later when you are hungry again.
Emotional hunger leads to guilt and regret, while physical hunger is feeling-neutral.
Ideally, eating is a feeling-neutral situation. We feel hunger, we eat something wholesome and nourishing, we no longer feel hunger, and we move on with our day. Pay attention to how you feel about what you eat, if you don’t like it, ask why!
Before we go off and practice this, I’d like to draw your attention to a keyword I used at the beginning of this article: shortcut. Sugar is our brain’s shortcut to serotonin, but it is not it’s only path. Smiles, hugs, kind words, exercise, laughter, and other gestures of love can provide the same payoff as a quick sugar fix. When we eat as an instinctive response to stress, that is our body’s and mind’s way of reaching out for comfort and stability. But, as powerful as food is, providing emotional support in uncertain times is out of its skill set. We have to do that ourselves.
Skip the shortcut this week and eat to fuel, not feel. Pay attention, and stay out of that stress-eating trap!
Heather Fuselier, CTTS, CPT, CHC
Health Advisor | E-Mail Heather