9 simple ways to manage stress eating

Dr Andreas Michaelides
Photo credit: Tim Macpherson - Getty Images

From Netdoctor

As we all take steps to safeguard the health of ourselves, our friends and loved ones, feelings of stress and anxiety can be a natural reaction to the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

You will likely have found that your routines – including your eating habits – have changed since March, when developments and physical restrictions related to coronavirus began ramping up. During this time of emotional vulnerability, food cravings can be difficult to resist, psychologically and even physically. You might find yourself eating more of a certain kind of food, serving larger or smaller portions, or experiencing cravings more than usual.

It is important to differentiate stress eating from disordered eating. If you suffer from an eating disorder or have disordered eating tendencies, this advice is not intended for you. See information on eating disorder treatment and additional support from the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline.

But why is this – and what can you do to manage any unhealthy eating patterns that are developing?

We spoke with Dr Andreas Michaelides, Chief of Psychology and behavioural change expert at mobile health technology company Noom, for his top tips on how to recognise and manage unhealthy food cravings and maintain healthy eating habits during the current COVID-19 outbreak.

Tip 1: create a new routine that meets your basic needs

With a drastic change in schedule, environment and resources, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Add emotional and physical distance from friends and family into the mix, and it becomes more important than ever to stay tethered to normalcy. Under these circumstances, it’s time to establish a new ‘normal’. Although it may be temporary, creating a fresh routine is a great place to start and will serve as a foundation for all you accomplish during this time.

Ensure that your basic needs are met before focusing on anything else. It seems obvious, but be intentional and protective about the following basic elements:

  • Eating
  • Hydrating
  • Sleeping
  • Going to the bathroom

Don’t assume you will make time in the moment; your new routine may not have the same cues, so set reminders or block time on your calendar to cue a self check-in.

Tip 2: recognise your food triggers

For many of us, emotions trigger specific cravings. It’s important to be able to distinguish between rational and irrational thoughts and behaviours when these feelings arise.

Sometimes the strongest food cravings hit when you’re at your most vulnerable. You may turn to food for comfort when facing anxiety, stress or even boredom – all feelings that may arise during this time of uncertainty and limited social interaction. Pinpointing why we crave specific foods and how our environment impacts our behaviour allows us to overcome and break habits that are detrimental, while establishing new, healthier ones.

Tip 3: identify your cravings

Next time you have a craving, try to figure out where it’s coming from. Is it emotional, nostalgic, psychological (triggered by a memory or routine), or true physical hunger? Do you typically have sugar, salt or fat cravings? Begin by identifying your patterns and write them down.

For example, some speculate that our bodies instinctively crave fat to soothe the nerves, which may explain why we have an increased urge to turn to fattier foods during the current crisis.

Once you’ve begun to understand your cravings, it will be easier to recognise them and allow for a better awareness of your triggers. All foods fit in moderation – you don’t need to conquer them, you can honour them.

Tip 4: replace the behaviour

This technique substitutes unhealthy eating habits in favour of healthier, more positive ones. For example, if you’re feeling like you want a snack, try drinking a cup of tea or glass of water and then assess whether you’re really hungry ten to 20 minutes later. This habit can help establish whether your craving is related to hunger or thirst: the sensation can be similar.

Tip 5: replace the food or portion size

If replacing your craving doesn’t work, it likely means you’re truly hungry. Here, you could indulge in a small portion of your food of choice, or have an alternative. For example, if you’re craving biscuits, you could have just one small biscuit, or replace it with something else entirely, such as fruit.

Tip 6: re-evaluate

If, after you’ve tried to replace the behaviour, food or portion side, you’re still craving a certain food, it’s time to re-appraise your daily food intake. If your normal routine has been disrupted by changes in lifestyle as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, you might be missing social cues that signal mealtimes, which can either lead to undereating or overeating. Skipping or missing meals can cause us to crave foods even more, particularly because we need that food to give us energy. We’re also more likely to give in to unhealthier habits when we lack the proper energy to fuel us (think less brain power).

Making sure to eat meals/snacks no more than four hours apart is a good rule of thumb.

Tip 7: incorporate mindfulness into your routine

Mindfulness is a proven tool for managing stress, improving sleep habits and increasing compassion. It’s also widely used in the context of eating, to help people develop healthier eating habits.

Incorporating mindfulness into your routine helps you become more self-aware of the choices you make in your diet and food consumption. Examples of mindfulness and diet include:

  • Cooking instead of ordering a takeaway, to connect with the ingredients you’re using
  • Sitting down at a table to eat your meal, without distractions, to fully appreciate your dish at each bite
  • Breathing deeply to ground yourself in the present moment, and engaging all your senses as you eat: how does your food taste? What flavours stand out?
  • Putting down your fork between each mouthful and reflecting.

As it takes 20 minutes for your brain to register your fullness, slowing down and appreciating your meal in the present is an important step in being able to tap into your hunger and fullness cues.

Tip 8: build your virtual support system

While we practice social-distancing, connectivity is still possible and it’s crucial to find support in ways you may not think you need. Be intentional when connecting with family and friends. Take time to video call a friend. Eat dinner with your family virtually. Scrolling through social media has its time and place, but it’s not the same as social support.

Tip 9: prioritise your mental health

While it’s important to look after yourself physically, recognise that your mental health is just as much of a priority. Self-care and awareness of your mental health status are important now, more than ever. Stay connected with your virtual support system and be open to sharing your day-to-day thoughts and experiences.

Social distancing, among other changes we are facing today, presents a new set of challenges that can stack additional stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness onto anyone’s plate. While it may take some creativity, find ways to cope with your new reality, and recognise that it is, ultimately, temporary.

Last updated: 08-04-2020

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