You’ve had a bad day, so you grab a tub of ice cream, move to the couch and dig right in. You don’t feel physically hungry, but eating ice cream is comforting. This is referred to as emotional eating or stress eating.
These terms are often used interchangeably, and both refer to turning to food to cope with emotions. This contrasts with wandering into the kitchen and grabbing some snacks because you’re bored. That’s boredom eating.
Why do people turn to food when stressed or bored? Biology and environment both play a role. Stress causes your body to release the hormone cortisol, which increases appetite and can lead to weight gain. Stress also increases ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” which stimulates appetite too.
“Meanwhile, insufficient sleep is also linked to a reduction in satiety hormones and an increase in hunger hormones,” explains registered dietitian Didi de Zwarte.
The best strategy is to stop and ask yourself, “Why am I eating right now?” and then decide the best course of action based on that answer.
“Only you can tell the difference between when you’re stress eating or eating out of boredom. Take a moment to tune into your body to find out which it is,” advises Bri Bell, R.D. “Either way, it’s perfectly normal and OK to occasionally eat due to stress or boredom or any other emotion. Beating yourself up about it only adds to the stressful emotions!”
According to Bell, you just don’t want eating to become your only way of coping with emotions. She recommends opting for coping strategies that are health-promoting. Read on for a few expert tips to try.
1. Take a deep breath.
“Focus on deep breathing for two to three minutes, or step outside for fresh air, allowing the outdoor light to hit your face,” suggests Jamie Lee McIntyre, R.D.N. “Your stress won’t disappear, but this can help create a buffer between the urge coming on and the act of eating and buy you time in deciding the best way to react.”
2. Make an activity list.
“Write a to-do list filled with both productive and fun things,” says McIntyre. “Pick two things to accomplish, then reassess if you need to eat. If you’re bored, you’ll be in a more productive or motivated mindset to move on to something else that doesn’t involve eating!”
3. Opt for exercise.
Physical activity is a great stress-buster and can assist with regulating hormones, too. If you’re bored and not physically hungry, work out first and then eat if you still feel the urge.
4. Set up your environment for success.
Put tempting foods behind closed cabinets or up high where you aren’t as likely to see them. Store healthy foods in see-through containers. It may sound silly, but research finds that keeping healthier food in plain sight and less-healthy treats out of sight can help you choose healthier options more frequently.
5. Eat balanced meals and get enough sleep.
Fill your plate with fiber, protein and healthy fats at each meal. This combo keeps hunger and satiety hormones working properly and keeps you full for several hours. Sleep seven to eight hours each night to avoid cravings the next day.
(EatingWell is a magazine and website devoted to healthy eating as a way of life. Online at www.eatingwell.com.)