The pressure’s on at work and you’re feeling down and overwhelmed. Suddenly those doughnuts in the break room that looked blah this morning sound really good — irresistible, actually. The siren song of the sugary snacks pulls you to them and, before you know it, you’re down two and a half doughnuts and wondering how you fell victim to stress eating. Again.
It happens more often than you’d like. Each time you take your hand out of the chip back or candy jar, you wonder how you got there and terrible about throwing away your diet. Here’s what you need to know about what’s happening in your body and how to stop it for good, starting with a simple fact: It’s not your fault.
Stress eating is real and not your fault
First of all, give yourself a break. The more you beat yourself up, the more likely you are to feel like you “already screwed up the day, anyway” and talk yourself into finishing the third doughnut. Second, your body is hardwired this way. It’s not because you lack willpower or superhuman emotional strength. When we’re anxious or stressed, our brains prioritize immediate satisfaction and you lose sight of long-term goals. When it comes to work or home stress, that means even though you love the weight-loss progress you’ve made, that cookie means more to your brain when you’re stressed out than fitting into that new dress in a month.
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There are hormones behind this urge to binge, too. If you’re not sleeping well — and if you’re stressed, changes are good you’re not logging those eight hours a night — your levels of two important hormones are thrown off: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is the hormone that tells you when you’re full and ghrelin is the “hunger hormone” that sends you running for sweet snacks. Logging less sleep than normal is associated with higher ghrelin levels and lower leptin levels, one study published in the journal PloS Med found.
How to stop stress eating for good
OK, we get it, understanding stress eating and figuring out how to stop stress eating are two very different things, but maybe this will help: A study out of University of Minnesota found that reaching for comfort food doesn’t actually improve your mood. Yes, unfortunately, you read that right.
The researchers conducted a series of four studies to see how big of a difference it made on your mood to turn to comfort food, an equally liked food, a food you don’t like as much, or no food at all. Turns out it didn’t matter what the study participants ate. The chocolate, ice cream, brownies and cookies had the same effect on a bad mood as turning down all food.
That’s why, as Dr. Sofia Rydin-Gray, Ph.D., behavioral health director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center, told Woman’s Day, the key to ending your stress eating is to acknowledge that you’re eating because you’re stressed. “Once you do that, try to figure out the source of that anxiety,” she told them. “Knowing why you’re reaching for something to nosh on can help you make a different choice.”
The key is finding ways to relieve your stress that aren’t about snacking, like taking a quick break from work to watch a funny YouTube video, or walking around the block and getting some fresh air. The same mental suggestion from before holds true here: When you’re thinking about how to stop stress eating, be gentle with yourself. This is a process, and the goal is simply to do better each time you get stressed, not to flip a switch and be perfect overnight.
The same University of Minnesota did have one finding that might let you have your chocolate and eat it, too, though: Apparently the mild mood boost you get from comfort food (and, as we just saw, other foods or no food) can be replicated by simply receiving a stress-busting snack like a piece of chocolate. So go ahead and buy yourself a nice truffle when you feel like stress eating — and then save it for some other time when you’ll actually enjoy it.