Five Ways to Stop Stress-Fueled Eating
Ever wonder why you're magnetically drawn to sweets when you're feeling frazzled? It's in our nature. Here's why - plus how to break the cycle that can lead to weight gain.
So you snarfed 10 Oreos after fighting with your spouse or munched a big chocolate bar while staring at that horrendous credit card bill. Skip the guilt—research suggests we're hardwired to start eating sweet stuff when the going gets tough.
In prehistoric times, stress eating may have been a smart survival strategy, say researchers at the University of California, San Francisco. Your agitated ancestors grabbed berries after the marauding tigers slunk away...so you head for the candy machine after the boss roars. "You need to refuel for the next crisis," explains study coauthor Norman Pecoraro, PhD.
The Stress–Eating Connection
Researchers found that stress prompts rats to release hormone signals for high-calorie eating. Dr. Pecoraro says it's surprisingly similar in humans. The bad news is that the eat-eat-eat signal only stopped when the rats had stored the extra calories as tummy fat. The good news is that exercise, eating right, and getting enough sleep can help prevent some of that stress in the first place.
Healthy Stress Solutions
Still, we don't live in a perfect world, so try these tricks after the stress starts—and before you reach for the snacks.
E-mail yourself. This is an easier way to keep an "eating journal"—especially if you spend 9-to-5 in front of the computer. Include circumstances (a tense conversation with your manager, a sudden deadline, a fight with a friend) and how you were feeling (sad, stressed, panicked, tired).
On a Friday, read all of your e-mails, and look for an emotional-eating pattern—then work to break it. For instance, if you reach for the chips when you get home from work (feeling annoyed, tired, and ravenous), take some whole grain crackers and an apple to the office tomorrow, and eat them before you head home.
Phone a friend. This lifeline can be used for more than just folks who want to be a millionaire. Instead of turning to food when you need comfort, call or text a close pal and vent about your feelings. If you have to leave a message, wait for a response before you head to the fridge.
Make yourself a nice cup of tea. Sounds soothing, doesn't it? It's not just psychological. Green and black teas both contain theanine, an amino acid that increases levels of relaxing chemicals in the brain. Wrapping your hands around a warm mug while breathing deeply may also help soothe jangled nerves.
Check your stress scale. Think of a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest degree of stress. Schedule some "stress checkpoints" during the day, and rate your stress level. Try not to let your number climb above a 5. If you're at a 4, take steps to defuse your stress: Do some deep breathing, take a walk, get up and stretch, or reach out to friends.
Calm down with healthier carbs. For some people, carbohydrates stimulate an especially powerful release of pleasure-producing hormones. Luckily, sweet but nutritious complex carbohydrates have the same calming effect and are less harmful to your waistline, because they provide a better sense of fullness than simple-carb foods like candy bars. Try savoring one of these snacks instead: a serving of tomato soup, whole wheat toast with jam, a multigrain waffle with light syrup, a piece of fresh fruit, a bowl of oatmeal, or a lightly sweetened whole grain cereal such as Multi-Grain Cheerios.
Luckily, it's never too late to change your emotional eating habits.
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