15 Ways to Control Stress Eating

Aly Walansky
Photo: Chris Ryan/OJO Images/Getty Images

Photo: Chris Ryan/OJO Images/Getty Images

We’ve all been there: A stressful or upsetting day can send us face first into a plate of nachos or a tub of ice cream. What’s that cookie stuffing down? Is that anger? Sadness? The more you try to ignore painful or uncomfortable emotions, the more they’ll take control and make you do things you regret, like reach for sweets, salts, and high carbohydrate foods. Food becomes our medicine and provides only a temporary—and unhealthy—relief of symptoms. Ultimately it ends up making us feel worse, which is why the key is to avoid indulging those feelings with food in the first place. Put these 15 methods of controlling emotional eating into play instead.

1. Research, prepare, and cook something good for you.
Aligning your brain with food gives it the message that it is being de-stressed. This way, you don’t get more stressed by depriving yourself of comfort by over-exercising, getting busy in other ways, or using another harmful substance to numb yourself, says Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D, a psychologist who specializes in stress and overeating.

2. Use that adrenaline for good.
Since stress floods the bloodstream with adrenaline, it’s a good thing to use it on getting all those odd jobs done that have been on your mind. Completing those tasks will help you to feel accomplished and in control rather than like a victim.

3. Write letters to the people who are causing relationship stress.
It’s a proven fact that putting things into words calms the brain and reduces stress—without the calories!

4. Keep a food journal.
Record your daily habits, as well as thoughts and emotions that are associated with eating. The first step to change is gaining awareness, and eating is often not a mindful activity, says Lori Schade, PhD, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist. “I have my clients keep a log of how they’re feeling, what’s triggering the feeling, what they eating, and what a healthy alternative could be in the future. This exercise helps for them to separate out what’s healthy and what’s not and ultimately leads them to make better choices,” says Jonathan Alpert, a Manhattan psychotherapist and author of “BE FEARLESS: Change Your Life in 28 Days.”

5. Define your emotions.
What are you feeling when you want to turn to the refrigerator? Are you feeling sad or lonely? Afraid? Knowing what the emotion is educates you and gives you freedom to manage the emotion in a different way, for example, calling a friend, performing a small act of kindness, or taking a walk, says Schade.

6. Label your thoughts.
What are you saying to yourself in your head? Examining self-talk is very powerful in change the dialogue we create for ourselves. Black and white thinking is especially harmful, says Schade.

7. Breathe.
Emotional eating is often fueled by some kind of anxiety, and when we are anxious, we tend to breathe shallowly. One of the fastest and easiest ways to reverse that feeling of anxiety, Schade says, is to breathe deeply.

8. Drink water.
If we’re dehydrated, we’re even more likely to turn to food when we’re not really hungry, says Nutrition & Wellness Advisor Jessica Sepel. Water can also fill you up and help distract you.

9. Take a bath.
Do something aside from eating to treat yourself and help you relax. It will put you in a different environment, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need in that moment, says Sepel.

10. Eat enough protein.
Be sure you eat a protein-rich snack between meals to keep your blood sugar stable so you don’t suddenly become ravenous—this will help prevent overeating, too, says Sepel.

11. Don’t skip meals.
This is a surefire way to get so hungry that a binge is inevitable. Keep your blood sugar stabilized with regular meals, says Sepel.

12. Learn mindful eating.
When you eat, pay close attention to the textures, smells, and flavors of what you are eating. It provides a new way to experience eating and opens up a pathway for new habits to develop so eating can be a positive experience instead of shaming.

13. Forewarned is forearmed.
If you anticipate a stressful day, make sure you have meals planned with adequate calorie intake, says Allison Puryear, LCSW, CEDS, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker & Certified Eating Disorder Specialist in Asheville, NC. If you get too hungry, it will be harder to manage your behavior. Stay out of the kitchen until meal or snack time, if possible.

14. Stress eating comes from a clear source: stress.
Eating is not going to solve your stress. Here’s what can: engaging in stress reduction behaviors, using your social support system for a vent session rather than an ice cream run, seeking help from a therapist, and ultimately making lifestyle changes, says Puryear. If you do stress eat despite your best intention not to, be gentle with yourself. Beating yourself up perpetuates the cycle, and sometimes a little self-compassion may be all you need to break it.

15. Don’t skimp on sleep.
Sleep deprivation is a one-way ticket to overeating. That’s because leptin and ghrelin, the two hormones that control hunger and appetite, become impaired, resulting in a loss of control. If you want to stay on top of your eating, it’s important to catch just the right amount of ZZZs, says Dr. Pamela Peeke, Senior Science Advisor at Elements Behavioral Health.

Read more: How Stress Can Wreak Havoc on Your Hair and Skin