Let me paint a scenario for you.
You’re about 2 months into your new nutrition plan.
Everything is going great. You’ve lost weight. You’re motivated and honestly, you’re just absolutely crushing it. There have been no road blocks or anything! YAY!
Almost every single time this happens, life hits.
One day you wake up. Food is prepped and pre-logged. You’re ready to keep continuing on your amazing journey.
But before you leave, you get in a fight with your spouse/roommate/sibling/parent/friend.
Then you mess up at work, and your job is threatened.
Then you get a phone call that a family member’s health.
Maybe you have to work late and you can’t make it into the gym.
Stress builds up and up until you can’t control it anymore.
Those little restrictions you’ve put in place to seeing results all hit at once. Cravings rise. Your inhibitions lower. You start to cave and eventually crumble.
One slice of pizza becomes two.
One cookie becomes the whole pack.
And so on...
Fast forward a month and you’ve regained all the amazing weight you’ve lost and maybe more. Your motivation is tanked. Your drive is all gone. Your gym attendance is garbage. Old habits have reintroduced themselves into your lives. All that hard work you put in is now gone.
Emotional eating is one of the #1 reasons people fail their diets. In a study that polled the top nutritional challenge to 100,000 individuals, 63% of people put it at the top of their list. Sixty-three percent. Thing of that number. That’s 63,000 people in that one questionnaire...all saying their biggest challenge is emotional/stress eating.
Navigating emotional and stress eating is a tough one. Everyone experiences stress differently, which means the triggers, responses, and most importantly the solutions are all going to be different.
This blog aims to help YOU navigate the world of emotional eating, specific to YOU. By the end of this article, you should have a clear idea as to 1. what triggers you, 2. what your general responses are to emotional stressors, and 3. how to solve your own personal response to stress eating.
When it rains, it pours
A number of things can trigger stress and the risk of emotional eating.
Fights with loved ones
Loss of a loved one
A family member’s poor health
News from today’s world (hi COVID, the shootings that led to BLM, COVID pt. 2, etc.)
Depression and anxiety
Loss of purpose
And so so much more
The problem with most stressful events is that it’s never one isolated event. IF it was, you likely could handle it.
But it’s never just one thing. To quote one of my favorite country singers, Luke Combs, “When it rains, it pours”.
One thing becomes two...which becomes three and so on. It’s not always that everything DOES actually come at one time...but you become more sensitive and aware to the problems and stressors you had originally been avoiding.
I remember recently, I found out a family member of mine was sick. Two days later, I found out my childhood cat had a few days left in his wonderful amazing life. All of this was during the initial wave of the coronavirus pandemic. To me, it felt like one thing was adding up to two then three. BUT then I become aware of the downward spiral. Because stress was entering my life, I started to then tack on all of the other stressors...that weren’t actually stressing me out...like finances, my job, my purpose, and so on.
In many check ins, I start to see this spiraling effect. ONE thing happened...but it opened the door for all of the other stressors waiting at the surface.
Which brings us to the very first step to take in navigating emotional eating tendencies.
STEP 1. GET AWARE
This is the very first step. Get aware as to when stress is starting to creep into your life. If you continue to practice and embrace the “ignorance is bliss” ideology, then the stress is only going to get worse and worse.
Awareness is the first step to seeing change. In order to figure out how to address your emotional eating habits, you need to do the work FIRST to figure out what causes you stress, how do you react, how long do you typically react, etc. Doing so will let you put back ups and habits in place to take over when stress enters your life.
If you are one who typically embraces the downward spiraling effect of stress, then getting aware of it is going to be the first step to stopping it.
Answer these questions:
What types of events and stressors trigger you? You likely know by this point. Go back to the list in the section above.
Which stressors out of that list commonly affect you? Write them down. Which ones aren’t on the list that you can add?
Are you a downward spiral-er?
How often does stress affect you and your nutrition?
So now we know WHAT is causing stress. Let’s now figure out HOW you express that stress.
STEP 2. YOUR RESPONSE
How you respond to stress is individual to you. Many times, this is a learned behavior...either from your peers or most commonly from your parents. It’s very common you handle problems and stress the same way your family members do. My dad goes into “fix-it mode”. My mom seeks the comfort of sweets and salty treats. It wasn’t until I moved away from home into my freshman dorm in college that I realized I do the exact same thing.
Why does it matter what your response is? If you know WHAT causes you stress, you can start addressing the common reactions you typically have while you still have control.
Most of this is going to be related to emotional eating as your response to stress...because that’s the name of the article...and it’s obviously nutrition related.
If your response to stress is that you have no control when it comes to sweets, then you know the second your family is coming into town (if that’s one of your stressors) that you remove sweets from your immediate line of sight and replace with sweet alternatives. Again, it all comes back to awareness. Yes, in a perfect world you’d be living in ignorance and all would be perfect...but it’s not. Hence why you’re 1000 words in this blog.
Let’s figure out your response to stress. Typical responses to stress are the following:
An insatiable appetite
Lack of sleep
Loss of motivation and drive
Fatigue and loss of energy
Lack of desire to exercise
Generally, when it comes to emotional eating, we fall into one of two categories: one where you don’t eat for hours and one where you want to eat anything and everything. Often times, you can experience a little of both...where you go hours without eating but then are faced with some serious hunger cues out for revenge.
Which ones do you often experience? Which ones do you wish you didn’t experience? Which brings the most stress and discomfort? Which can you change? Which are likely going to be there no matter what?
NOTE – You may not know!! Read and save this blog article for the next time you go through a stressful period. Use this as a guide as you’re going through the stress in your life. I recently went through a VERY stressful period that was so bad I developed back spasms. I just sat in the stress and made observations as to how I responded...which has helped me write this for you!
STEP 3. FIXING YOUR STRESS RESPONSE
There are a couple things to keep in mind and a priority as you sense stress creeping in...
Listen to your body
Prioritize nutrient quality
Maintain meal timing
Make it easy
Remove what needs to be removed
Keep what needs to be kept
Change your movement
Let’s dive in deeper.
The number one lesson you can take is to listen to your body. It likely is telling you everything you need to hear. Most of this is done in the previous steps, where you’re simply becoming aware of the stress that’s entering your life. As we move through the next couple of options, how you go about implementing each one is up to you and your body. You may continue to track macros during stress because this is YOUR way of holding yourself accountable to eating enough food. You may switch to a more intuitive-eating style during stress because counting macros is only going to bring you more stress. Let your body decide what it needs. Be open minded. Listen. Slow down. Write this stuff down. Navigate it. It’s going to change each day. Be open and receiving to that change. Most importantly, ask for help if you can’t hear what your body is telling you.
Next, you want to keep food quality as nutritious as you can. The more nutrients you’re getting in, the more [essential] vitamins and minerals you’re bringing in your body. Nutrients from plants, vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, clean protein sources are the things that are going to help your body manage its stress. When stress is high, your body is going to put priority towards fighting that over some important processes going on in your body. Stress wreaks havoc on a number of things going on in your body: your digestion, sleep, hormone health, energy, etc. Keeping nutrient quality high will help keep these things regulated and strong, while you, yourself, may not be feeling so great. Rely on things like smoothies and bowls to get in a ton of nutrients without having to gorge out on food. It’s likely that even IF you’re starving, you’re not craving a spinach salad. If you’re making smoothies, you can load it up with fruit, protein (via protein powders or Greek yogurt), greens, coconut, honey, and my favorite smoothie addition nuts and seeds (TONS of nutrients here). You can even add things like beets or cauliflower rice. Whether you continue to track and count your macros during stressful periods is completely up to you, but either way the more nutrients you’re bringing in, the better.
Next up is meal timing. No matter what, this is likely something that gets thrown to the side. If you have an insatiable appetite, meal timing is going to help get things back on schedule and will prevent you from going off the deep end. If, on the other hand, you have no appetite, meal timing is going to help you remember to eat. Set timers on your phone to remind you to eat. If you have an insatiable appetite, give yourself frequent meals. If you don’t have an appetite, decide on the number of meals you need to give yourself to get in the minimum requirement of food and set timers to remind you.
Move your body in a supportive way. Stress is only made worse by highly intense exercises. Slow things down. Introduce tempo and accessory movements. Stick to walking, light biking, hiking, swimming, and yoga to move your body but keep it restorative, as well. Crushing yourself at the gym is going to tax your adrenal system (basically your stress-response center in your body) even more...making recovery that much harder.
Make it easy by listening, again, to what your body is telling you. Setting reminders on your phone, removing triggering foods, keeping exercise simple and supportive are all effective ways at navigating stress. Don’t make things harder than it needs to be. If you’re struggling remembering to eat, don’t make it to where you need an hour to cook your meals. If you don’t have much of an appetite, lean towards fresh foods, smoothies, yogurt, etc. to get in your nutrients not some heavy pasta dish. If you know having sweets around is going to be a recipe for disaster, REMOVE THEM for the time being.
Give yourself some space too. You don’t need to lose 10lbs during, say, a pandemic. I’ve touched on this before. There’s a season for everything. It’s okay to back off when you’re stressed and wait for a more suitable time to push the limits.
For more information on your nutrition and to set up a free consult call to navigate your own personal emotional eating journey, check out some resources below.
Resources and Coaching:
Online Coaching here.
[Free] Nutrition Guide here.
Recipe & Macro Guide here.