Are you Hungry or Stressed?

by Staci O’Connor MS, RD, CDN

Have you ever noticed that when you get stressed out about work or family that you find yourself reaching for high-calorie, sweet and fatty foods?  While some people may lose their appetite or may even get sick to their stomach over stress, others might be conditioned to soothe themselves with food.  But you can take steps to regain control of your eating habits since stress eating is a learned response.

So you may ask…how do I break the habit?

Since stress eating is an emotional response that becomes automatic over time, to break the habit you are going to have to learn a new habit.  The next time that you feel stressed, try to feel the sensation, stop, sit down, try to engage in deep breathing, feel it, and see what happens.  It is important to stop and think, are you actually hungry or just craving food in response to stress.  What will usually happen is the feeling will dissipate and you won’t feel hungry any more.  By repeating this pattern over time it will become a new habit.  .

Other food alternatives include regular exercise which can help prevent stress or exercising when you feel stressed to help manage the stress.  Instead of running into the kitchen or to the nearest vending machine, go for a walk.  Or give yourself a break, stop what you are doing and step away from the situation for a while and distract yourself with a more pleasant topic.  Make a list of what is actually stressing you out and make a plan to control the situation.  Keep a journal and record your feelings.  This will help you make connections between what you are feeling and the choices that you make.  Try meditation and visualize a peaceful place or listen to some classical music to calm yourself down. Finally, try something fun, play a game, watch a movie, call and hang out with a friend, or even dance!

It may take some time, but you can retrain yourself to eat only when you are hungry and not stressed.  Learning to tell the difference between hunger and stress is the first step and then finding other outlets to satisfy your emotional hunger is the next step.  Keep with it and you can regain control of your eating habits.