How to Avoid Stress Eating While Sheltering in Place

Monday, April 20 2020

Sheltering in place gives you a chance to spend more time with your family and slow the pace of your life. It’s also giving you more opportunities to forage through the kitchen, especially when you’re stressed.

With the changes in your daily schedule and habits, you may find yourself eating erratically. You might mindlessly grab some food for yourself when you make your child yet another snack. Perhaps, the stress of managing all the new expectations — and news — has you reaching for potato chips or chocolate when you usually wouldn’t.

You aren’t alone. Many people are discussing their growing waistlines on social media. They hope they’ll still fit into their work pants when restrictions are lifted. Fortunately, you can avoid stress eating and overeating while sheltering-in-place.

Why Do People Eat More When Stressed?

When we’re chronically stressed, our bodies release the stress hormone cortisol. It stimulates our appetite and causes us to crave foods that are high in fat and sugar. These comfort foods are highly reinforcing, so you’re more likely to reach for them again when stressed.  

What is the Difference Between Hunger and Stress Eating?

When we’re hungry, we eat to satisfy a physical need. Stress eating occurs when you turn to food to fill an emotional need, such as relieving stress or alleviating boredom.

Emotional eating can happen suddenly and doesn’t necessarily stop if you’re full. You’re also more likely to eat mindlessly. Unfortunately, we tend to reach for unhealthy foods like sweets or fried foods when emotionally eating.

Identifying Your Overeating Triggers

Stress, particularly chronic stress, is one trigger that can cause you to overeat, but it’s not the only one. Certain situations or cues may lead to emotional eating. The more you can identify what your triggers are, the easier it will be to avoid overeating at those times.

Some other emotional eating triggers include:

  • Boredom
  • Feeling overly tired
  • Avoiding uncomfortable emotions such as sadness, fear, loneliness, or anger
  • Financial concern
  • Health problems
  • Habits, such as eating when you’re not hungry because other people are eating

5 Ways to Avoid Stress Eating When Home

Here are five strategies to avoid stress eating while you’re sheltering in place.

1. Pause before you grab something to eat.

Delay eating for a few minutes to give yourself time to decide if you’re actually hungry. You can also begin to uncover potential triggers, such as craving sweets when reading the news. This awareness can help you gain control and prevent mindless eating.

To help, ask yourself:

  • Am I hungry right now, or is something else going on?
  • What emotions am I feeling (e.g., bored, stressed, anxious, lonely, angry)?
  • Why am I getting something to eat at this moment (e.g., Am I feeling frustrated?)?
  • What was I doing right before I had the urge to get something to eat?

2. Replace the urge to stress eat with an alternative, healthy behavior.

If you realize you’re not hungry, replace the temptation to stress eat with a healthy behavior. Physical activity such as stretches, walking inside, or jumping jacks helps calm your body and mind. Meditation, listening to a song, or drinking water also can help.

3. Remove foods that tempt you

When we eat for emotional reasons, we tend to grab unhealthy foods like sweets or potato chips. If possible, don’t keep these types of foods in your house.

However, if you live with other people, removing all junk foods may not work. Instead, try storing these foods in less visible places that need more effort to get them. Put your go-to bag of chips in the back of the pantry or on the highest shelf. Don’t store cookie jars or candy dishes on your counter, so you’re less tempted to eat these items.

4. Plan your meals and your snacks.

Planning your daily meals and snacks can help you avoid grabbing unhealthy snacks. Keep to your regular meal times as much as possible to maintain your pre-quarantine routines. Set aside specific snack times for yourself, so you’re less tempted to eat when stressed or bored.

Look for healthy foods that can satisfy your cravings, like vegetables with hummus or fresh fruits with a yogurt-based dip. Try preparing your snacks ahead of time, so they are easy to grab.  

5. Slow down and enjoy your food.

Now that you don’t have to commute or run out to grab lunch between meetings, you can use that time to eat slower and enjoy your meal. Slowing down can help you eat less since you’ll have time to notice when you’re feeling full before you’ve overeaten.  

Avoiding Stress Eating Doesn’t Mean Depriving Yourself

Sheltering in place due to this pandemic isn’t normal. You are developing and balancing new routines in a time filled with change and uncertainty. Feeling overwhelmed, stressed, angry, or any number of emotions is understandable.

It’s okay to decide to snack on your favorite cookie or chips sometimes. The key is that you choose. You are in control.

By being in control, you can ensure that you’re eating an appropriate amount when you’re hungry, and making healthy choices most of the time. As a result, you’ll avoid gaining weight or developing stress eating habits while you’re staying at home.

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