Imagine you’re overloaded at work, dealing with family drama or in the middle of a major home renovation. It’s times like these when stress eating strikes and, eventually, it can ruin hard-earned weight loss or healthy eating progress. While that sleeve of cookies, jar of peanut butter or bag of chips may help you feel better in the moment, it isn’t likely to have a lasting, stress-relieving effect.
Luckily, there are many scientifically proven ways to combat the urge to eat when life gets demanding. Here’s what eating pros recommend to their clients and patients when stress-induced eating becomes a struggle.
Sometimes, you just need to vent. “Talking with friends and family can be a great way to relieve stress, as it acts as a distraction while also giving you an opportunity to vent about life’s stresses,” explains Allison Childress, PhD, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Texas Tech University. “Sometimes, we just need to get it out to feel better, and a sympathetic ear is all we need.”
When it comes to stressful, anxious thoughts, they’re better out than in. “If talking is too much, write your thoughts in a journal,” Childress says. Journaling as a way of venting can be therapeutic, as is jotting down a few things each day that you’re grateful for or that are going well. Not the journaling type? “Simply stand in front of your mirror and vent,” Childress suggests.
“Taking a walk around your neighborhood or at the park can help you relax while getting some steps in,” says Staci Gulbin, a registered dietitian. In fact, research shows walking can help lower systolic blood pressure, which can be an indicator of reduced stress. “Also, a study on mindful walking, or focusing on the present moment and being aware of your body movements while walking, shows that this type of walking may reduce stress and improve quality of life in some individuals,” Gulbin says.
And, the more natural your surroundings, the better, since walking in a forest has been shown to have better stress-reducing effects than walking in a city environment. Of course, if you’re not able to get into a natural environment, walking is still worthwhile thanks to its host of health benefits.
Exercise is a well-known stress reliever, but it may surprise you to know you don’t have to go all out in order to get a mood boost. “Getting up and getting the blood flowing and getting fresh oxygen can be a key component to managing stress,” says Candice Seti, PsyD, a psychologist who works with patients who are trying to lose weight.
This is all about building serotonin and oxytocin, neurotransmitters/hormones that counteract cortisol or the “stress hormone,” she says. “In addition to that benefit, movement can be a welcome distraction from your source of stress and is a great way to reset your brain so things become a little clearer and more focused. It’s amazing how getting active for just a few minutes can change your perspective and help you feel refreshed and more capable.”
Don’t feel like you have to hit the gym to get some activity in. “You can dance around your house, take the dog for a walk, climb some stairs, have sex or anything else you can think of that gets the blood flowing,” Seti adds.
“Meditation is a wonderful stress-management tool, as it can calm both the body and mind simultaneously,” Seti explains. “In addition to providing that calming effect, it can also help build mindfulness skills which can translate to more mindful eating.” Through mindful eating, you can become that much more aware of how hungry you really are, which may stop you from reaching for those comfort foods.
“You can get these effects from meditating for as little as 5 minutes a day,” Seti adds. If you’re new to meditation, she recommends trying a guided meditation to help you learn the ropes and feel more comfortable.
Music is a great way to change your mood, according to Childress. “I make different playlists for different moods. I have a loud screamy one for when I’m angry, a soft relaxing one for when I’m stressed and an inspirational one for when I’m down.”
Research shows fragrances are directly linked to the emotional center of our brain, Childress notes. “Lighting a candle or heating up some essential oils or wax melts may be your ticket to stress relief. Some scents that have been shown to work well for emotional well-being are lavender, pine, fresh-cut grass, vanilla and jasmine.”
The scent that works for you is really an individual thing. “My favorites for stress relief usually include some type of food smell like birthday cake, chai or mocha — not surprising coming from a dietitian,” Childress says.“The bottom line is: Find a scent that you love and start sniffing.”
Or try some poses at home. “Yoga styles do differ but have the same common theme: Join the body and mind,” says Carol Aguirre, a registered dietitian. “The benefit of yoga for stress seems to be related to its effect on your nervous system and stress response. It may help lower cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate and increase gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that is lowered in mood disorders.”
“Deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, is a great way to help calm your mind and reduce stress,” Gulbin says. “In fact, research shows that this type of breathing can reduce cortisol levels in the body.”
Learning this method is actually quite simple. Place your hand on your abdomen, breathe in for 5 seconds while you feel your abdomen expand, hold for 5 seconds, and then exhale for 5 seconds. Repeat this for a few minutes to start. “You may feel a little lightheaded after your first time, so be sure you are not driving or engaging in any other activity while practicing this breathing,” Gulbin says.
“As you become more practiced, you may find that you can inhale, hold and exhale for longer periods of time, up to about 8 seconds.” As you get better at it, you can build up the amount of time you spend doing this type of breathing, Gulbin says, which can help provide more oxygen to the brain, stimulate the parasympathetic system, which helps the body conserve energy and, in turn, promote calmness.