You just got home from a stressful day at work, and all you can think of is your secret stash of chocolate or ice cream. You feel you’ve earned a treat after such a difficult day full of anxiety, but you soon rationalize your unhealthy eating habits in the same fashion every day. Just because you do experience anxiety, this doesn’t give you an excuse to run to unhealthy food to calm your nerves. Experts give their advice for staying away from bad food while experiencing anxiety or its aftereffects.
Diana Fletcher, a stress-reducing expert coach and the author of “Reduce Your Stress: Month-by-Month Stress-Reducing Strategies,” sent seven tips through email that can help you avoid that junk food binge.
1)“Do not let yourself get hungry. Eat small meals throughout the day. If you are hungry and stressed -- disaster!”
2)“You know your stressed-out times. Prepare for them. One time may be right after work, when you walk in the door. Have food prepared at eye level in your fridge. Really good fruit, already cut up, low-fat yogurt and other ‘treats’ that can stand in for the junk. (You want sweet, creamy, crunchy ... etc. Be ready for those. Note: Pickles can stand in for crunchy and salty.)”
3)“Plan different routes home. If you know you pass a Dairy Queen or McDonald's and you will be tempted, have an alternate route.”
4)“Have food in your car. Again, different textures and tastes that can be substitutes for the high-calorie food.”
5)“Make a list of activities you can do when you are stressed. Deep breathing works wonders. Jumping jacks, hobbies, running around the house, and so on. Have the list handy and pick one activity when you are stressed.”
6)“Use the 15-minute rule. ‘I will wait 15 minutes to have chocolate.’ And then another 15 ... meanwhile, you may fill up on the healthy stuff.”
7)“Don't have the junk in the house.”
Stacy Spensley, a certified holistic health coach, has her own six tips for women to avoid eating when they’re anxious or stressed, that she sent through email:
1) “Take a deep, grounding breath. This helps you get in tune with your body and its needs before reaching for the candy dish.”
2) “Drink a glass of water. Most people are chronically dehydrated, and symptoms can include headaches, fatigue and hunger. Grabbing coffee or an energy drink in the afternoon can make you feel more anxious while adding empty calories to your diet.”
3) “If you're having cravings, identify the craving for what it really is. Stress tends to invoke a sugar craving (quick carbs for that inherent fight-or-flight response). Satisfy that craving with fruit or naturally starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots or beets. Have a hankering for potato chips? Try crunchy almonds, carrot or jicama sticks, or kale chips.”
4) “Get up and move. Exercise is not only distracting from a stressful situation, but physical activity creates feel-good endorphins that can help calm you down.”
5) “Identify what you're actually hungry for. Are you seeking approval or love? Are you looking to fill an emptiness within you that's unfulfilled? Try to locate that feeling in your body to figure out what type of nourishment you actually need.”
5) “Free writing. Allowing yourself to express your anxiety and fears can be extremely healing. Sit down with a notebook or at the computer and write whatever comes to mind, with no thought of quality or end product. See how you feel at the end.”
Marissa Vicario, a certified holistic health coach and founder of Marissa’s Well-being and Health (MWAH!), said in an email that eating because of stress and anxiety could be a sign of emotional eating, and she suggests talking to a professional to help with that issue.
“Some basic tips are to know what your triggers are and learn to identify them,” Vicario said. “This can take some time, but it helps to journal and be really gentle with yourself at first. Once you’ve determined your triggers, be prepared with healthy snacks to munch on and stress-relieving activities that can divert your attention away from food and calm your nerves (deep breathing, stretching, a walk around the block, a favorite yoga class or a phone call to a friend or loved one are good examples).”
Jessica Setnick, the author of “The American Dietetic Association Pocket Guide to Eating Disorders,” suggested in an email to try a simple test to help you think about your eating situation.
“The best thing is to use the apple test -- would I eat an apple? If you would, you know you’re hungry,” Setnick said. “If you wouldn’t, you know you are having an emotional craving. If you hate apples -- or love apples -- use the saltine cracker test, or carrot test. The goal is not to find an apple and eat it, it’s to separate actual hunger from stress or boredom eating.”
How do you control unhealthy eating when you are stressed and anxious?
Fletcher, Diana. Email interview. August 16, 2011.
Spensley, Stacy. Email interview. August 16, 2011.
Vicario, Marissa. Email interview. August 15, 2011.
Setnick, Jessica. Email interview. August 15, 2011.
Reviewed August 18, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Jody Smith