Could work stress be causing your expanding waistline? A recent Finnish study found that women who had job burnout were more likely to turn to food for comfort and to eat uncontrollably, compared with women who weren’t overworked. The study‘s authors suggested that obesity treatment should include evaluations of people’s work stress and emotional eating habits.
It’s not just a stressful workweek, but also a fight with the spouse, a visit with the in-laws or an all-around low mood that can make the chocolate ice cream beckon that much more seductively. “Stress, anxiety, depression, really any kind of strong emotion can trigger an emotional binge,” says Dr. Joy Jacobs, clinical eating disorder psychologist and assistant clinical professor at University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine. “Emotional eating happens whenever someone has an emotion they do not know how to handle, even happiness, and they channel it into an eating experience.”
But while self-medicating through fatty foods can provide temporary comfort, the aftermath is usually bleak. In the short-term, you’re likely to feel regret for binging; in the long-term, you may be setting yourself up for weight gain and related health problems. And spikes in consumption of junk food may end up worsening your mood overall. “We tend to go for the chocolate when we’re stressed out,” says Dr. Susan Albers, psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Family Health Center and author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. “It increases our blood sugar and we feel good, but then we experience a sudden drop. That drop makes you even more moody and you will want even more sugary snacks.”
One easy trick for curbing cravings is simple distraction. Doctors recommend finding alternatives to eating, such as calling a friend or reading a magazine — one study found that knitting helped take people quit obsessing over food. The same technique may help you overcome other bad habits too, from smoking to biting your nails.
“It’s good to get your hands engaged in something else so you cannot eat at same time,” says Albers. “Do something soothing to calm you down. It will also help you find other things that relax you besides food.” If you can distract yourself for a few minutes, the urge to eat should subside.
Keep a Journal
Logging your daily food intake can help you recognize your emotional eating triggers. Dr. Jacobs recommends jotting down the time of day you feel hungry and how you feel emotionally. This process helps differentiate between when you’re feeling physical versus emotional hunger.
“Physical hunger is usually accompanied by symptoms like a growling stomach or lightheadedness. Emotional hunger is when you want to eat, but not because you are physically starving,” says Dr. Jacobs. “People think they want to eat, but do not know why. They do not connect it to an emotion.”
Once you know your triggers, you can develop a plan for the next time you want to reach for the peanut butter jar. “If there is a certain time of day you are more likely to binge, you can change up your routine. If it’s right after work, you can do something else before going home. By changing up your routine, you ensure binging does not become a natural course of events for you. Emotional eating will not become a habit,” says Jacobs.
Practice Mindful Eating
“You cannot be eating mindfully and emotionally at the same time,” says Albers. Mindful eating means creating an awareness of your eating habits and taking in all the sensations you experience when you eat. As you eat, savor each bite and pay attention to how you’re feeling.
“It is important to learn how to connect the feelings we get when we eat back to our physiological reactions — back to the reasons we should be eating in the first place,” says Albers. “It is about breaking our autopilot eating behaviors. We often don’t realize how much we are eating. We lose track and often overeat because we are eating mindlessly.”
Dr. Edward Abramson, professor of psychology at California State University, teaches mindful eating in his emotional eating workshops. “We have to start paying attention to our automatic eating behaviors. If a Doritos commercial comes on TV, we suddenly reach for a salty snack. When we are more deliberate about how we eat, we increase our awareness and decrease our consumption,” says Abramson. “I tell people, when you are standing in front of the fridge with the urge to eat, stop for a minute and ask yourself what do you really need right now. You may just be bored or anxious.”
Exercise helps you unwind and puts you in a better position to deal with heightened emotions. After reviewing literature on the neurocognitive aspects of eating behaviors and the impact of physical activity on the brain, researchers from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston concluded that exercise is a great way to deal with food temptation. According to the researchers, exercise strengthens the brain’s powers of executive function — thinking ahead and controlling inhibitions — which makes it easier to say no to a second helping of dessert.
Dr. Albers specifically recommends yoga for emotional eaters. “Yoga can help you deal with temptations and be a more mindful eater,” she says. “It creates body awareness. It reduces the fight-or-flight emotion you get when you’re stressed out and increases your levels of serotonin and dopamine, which help your mood.”
Get Enough Sleep
The chronically sleep-deprived may be more likely to succumb to anxious snacking. Getting adequate sleep has been shown to reduce your cortisol levels — the hormone that rises when you’re anxious or stressed. “Not getting enough sleep contributes to depression, irritability and reduced ability to control stress and anxiety. All of these things will further contribute to vulnerability for emotional eating in at risk individuals,” says Jacobs.
A recent study presented at the American Heart Association’s annual Epidemiology and Prevention/Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism conference found that people who were sleep deprived tended to overeat. In fact, compared with people who got to sleep as much as they wanted, those who were roused out of bed too early ate 550 additional calories every day. Healthland’s Alice Park wrote:
Getting a consistent and sufficient amount of sleep each night may play an important role in regulating how much we eat and how many calories we burn, and it may also help determine when we eat. Eating when we should be sleeping, for example, may increase the risk of weight gain, as the body is more likely to turn nighttime calories into fat rather than burning them off.