It’s 5 p.m. and you’re literally exhausted from the day. You got into it with your boss or you just spent the day busting your tail to get a boatload of work accomplished and skipped your lunch in the process. Your precious dog had an accident in the house, which greets you when you first get home. You’re worried about affording groceries, when you’ll have time to do laundry, and what the heck you’re going to make for dinner. All the while your stomach is a ball of knots because you’re starving and you have a to-do list the size of Egypt that never seems to disappear.

But the bag of cookies, tub of coconut ice cream, and box of chocolate candies sure is looking good right about now. You know those foods aren’t going to make you feel well or make the stress, your boss, the work, the laundry, or your dog’s mess disappear. But alas, you reach for them anyway. And go back again, and again and again, until suddenly you never want to look at cookies, coconut ice cream, and chocolate again- like, ever again.

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What Stress Eating Is and Isn’t

Stress eating is not something to be ashamed of, folks. It plagues many people, usually all of us, at some point in our lives, whether to a small extent, or even a larger one that leads to other health issues. Stress eating is like band-aid, if you will. It covers up the problem temporarily, yet never really takes care of the solution.

Now, make no mistake. Stress eating isn’t just about junk food cravings, or even our lack of motivation. Usually, it’s a biochemical response (fancy term for something that happens in your body) that’s actually a survival mechanism. It’s there to protect you because your body senses any form of stress as a point of panic. Because our make-up is known to sense stress as a time of starvation, famine, and panic, our natural human tendency is to reach for food because our brain reverts to thinking we have to eat to make things better, and to survive. Unless you’re highly aware of this, it’s easy to just keep reaching for food over and over again anytime you’re stressed, until eventually, it just becomes one big, bad habit that’s hard to break.

Food addictions and low blood sugar can also play a part, of course. Sugar, processed fats, and animal foods raise insulin levels in the body and also contain addictive properties. These can make breaking the stress-eating habit even harder to break. But remember, that’s just what stress-eating is, a habit. As light-hearted or as serious as it may be, stress-eating isn’t something you can’t fix. You can.

Even in the heat of the moment when the ice cream has never looked so good, you still have all the power. You just have to harness it, instead of clutching onto the bag of cookies like you’ll never have one again!

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Here’s what to do to prevent stress eating and stop it when it starts:

1. Be Proactive

This is a fancy term for basically, eating regularly throughout the day so that you’re not so hungry when you get home (or any other time you typically stress eat.) Skipping meals sets your body up for internal stress, without anything else even going wrong. Cortisol raises quickly when your insulin levels become out of balance, which happens when you start to practice skipping meals. Chronic dieters and diabetics know the feeling all too well, because when blood sugar gets out of control, everything in the house, room, and 5 mile radius looks as good as a Thanksgiving dinner and stash of Halloween candy combined! So be proactive. Even if you don’t think you really need to eat lunch or feel like things are more important than noshing on something to eat, eat lunch. Eat a healthy one, and be sure you eat breakfast too. Even if it’s not when you first get up, eat it before you start your work day and the day’s challenges begin. Here are some delicious breakfast and lunch recipes you can check out to prepare ahead of time. Eating out or on the run? Here’s how to do it healthfully so you don’t find yourself hungry and tempted to stress eat because you’re starving.

2. Take Back Control

Do you really want to say you let a certain food have more power than you? Then don’t. Unless it’s a huge bowl of broccoli or a kale smoothie we’re talking about (which you’re likely not drowning your sorrows in anyway), then no food is worth you suffering food guilt from later on, or worth making you nauseous for. Own your stress and sort through it by taking back the power of your self control and your ability to handle stress the right way. Give yourself some credit because you can do it. Everyone can. Even if you have to literally talk out loud to yourself and say, “I’ve got this. I’m bigger than this,” then do it. Who cares how silly you might sound? You’re in the driver’s seat and you truly can take back control. Every time you do, it gets a little bit easier and those cookies, ice cream, and chocolates don’t look near as magical as they once did. And if you truly can’t resist them, even at your best, then don’t keep them in the house so they don’t mess with your mind and cloud your judgement. Spend that money you would have spent on junk items on some sweet potatoes, kale, almonds, and some quinoa instead. Those foods all nourish you and provide you with a wealth of magnesium, and other nutrients that settle your nerves and ease your stress in a healthy way.

3. Put Things in Perspective

Remember, at the end of the day, food is food. We can use it to feed us or to numb us. Use it to feed you instead of numb you out. Nothing’s more comforting than a nourishing meal that makes you feel good from your head to your toes. Eating over the sink, in the floor, or heaven forbid while you’re driving, and stress-eating – nah, not so much. Think of food as a gift, not a drug. When you do, it’s truly the most beautiful thing in the world, and it also helps you appreciate yourself and where food comes from in a whole other way.

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4. Take a Walk

Take a walk, run, jog, or even hit your yoga mat, but do something active instead of eat when you’re stressed. Exercise is one of the best ways to deal with stress because it allows your body to release all that cortisol and channel it into energy. Even if you just do something for thirty minutes, then do it, and try to do it daily. Besides, when you get done, you can make yourself a nourishing post-workout smoothie and feel good about yourself while also giving your body something delicious to refuel with.

5. Talk It Out

Other people have the best way of putting things into perspective for us sometimes. For example, your boss, the pile of laundry, dog’s mess, and long to-do list might seem like the end of the world to you on a bad day, but really, those things aren’t as big as they seem. Talking things out with someone, or even just writing them all down if you don’t want to talk to someone, can help big time. When you look at what’s stressing you and voice it out loud, it often helps you realize that the things you maximize are really just minimal in the grand scheme of things. Animals dying, people starving, and people in our lives we love- now that’s what matters. Stress eating over the small stuff? Totally not worth it.

Remember that being hungry can cloud your good judgement worse than anything else, so be sure you feed your awesome self throughout the day so you don’t wind up cranky, moody, and in a relationship with the junk foods you turn to, day in and day out, on a regular basis. Food is medicine, not a drug. Use it smart and it will benefit you in ways you couldn’t imagine.

Image Source: Matt Biddulph/Flickr

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