By: Jadon Webb, M.D., Ph.D.
Many of us feel the stress of quarantine, covid, and the economy in our relationship with food.
The perpetual stress of the unknown triggers our bodies to be in Fight of Flight mode. This can drastically affect appetite, as our brain focuses on basic survival instincts, and stops being as thoughtful and rational about things like healthy eating.
When we experience frustration, irritation, and boredom our appetite typically increases, i.e. the dreaded “stress eating” that can lead to weight gain.
I asked the owner of Grow Well Nutrition, Britta Bevlavi, what we can do to fight stress eating. Britta is a true dietary expert that has helped many of our clients.
Britta impressed the idea of turning emotional eating (ie stress eating) into mindful eating.
I knew she was on to something when she immediately pointed out that trying to shame or nag yourself into not stress eating does not work. I know that from personal experience!
Thankfully, there is a way to program your mammalian stress-eating self, and it actually does work. The trick is to not think about eating less, but to instead pull your brain out of fight or flight, and into a mindful state. This mindful state is way better equipped to pay attention to your natural hunger and fullness cues, and to not overeat.
In other words, you do not want to bully your emotional brain into doing the right thing, you want to get out of an emotional state of mind.
You can start getting into this state of mind by taking a 30 minute “mindset break” before eating.
To take a mindset break, first stop the negative input. Turn off any news, social media, or anything else that is filling your head with intense or negative thoughts. News and social media are almost always a source of stress, even when you aren’t consciously aware of it. If you have just been exposed to it, you are likely to be in a more emotional, reactive state. Just what you don’t want when you are about to eat. So turn them off!
Next, do something rejuvenating. Listen to music, do meditation, or read a good book. These are positive mental activities will bring you to a much more calm state where you can be aware of your natural hunger and fullness signals.
Add in 15 minutes of movement. Go walk around, stretch, and move. This brings your whole body into better alignment and makes it even easier to be attentive to natural eating signals.
Finally, sit in a very specific, designated place for eating, like the kitchen table. I had never really thought of this, but it sounded obvious once Britta pointed it out.
We humans are so sensitive to place conditioning, and quickly learn to associate certain places and times of day with certain activities. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of grabbing a handful of something as you walk through the kitchen or mindlessly snacking as you watch TV at night. But if if you make yourself go sit at the kitchen table, using silverware and plates/bowls, it helps make each eating time a specific, defined event, and you will be less prone to impulse eating.
Britta refers to this as “eating with intention.” This can be a secret weapon against stress eating!
By intentionally sitting in a specific place for eating free from distraction, you get to check in with physical cues of hunger and fullness, and rationally decide when it is time to eat, rather than being victim to whenever your emotions wash over you and make you impulsively eat.
If you clear your head, move for a few minutes, and sit in a specific eating place, eating will be a very different experience.
Now as you do this, notice your feelings when eating - see if you are using food to get (or get away from) a certain emotion or feeling. Is it to end hunger, or is it to combat loneliness, anxiety, or insomnia? Just observe, and see what connects to what.
Remember, don’t be judgmental or keep thinking about how you should be eating, just notice how you are feeling. This will give you great insight, and paradoxically, is often enough to start breaking up the emotional eating. Many habits change just by being observed.
Incidentally, doing these mindset breaks is good for other reasons. It will make you feel more relaxed and even more productive. I’ve been trying this out, and it works. I plan to keep at this long after quarantine.
Don’t try to bully yourself out of stress eating! Take a mindset break, and observe how you feel as you eat. You might find yourself naturally eating healthier.
about the authorS
Jadon Webb, M.D., Ph.D.
Bloom Mental Health
Disclaimer: this blog is NOT intended as medical advice and does not imply any kind of specific guidance or treatment recommendations, and should NOT be used to guide a treatment protocol. (read full disclaimer)
DNP, MSN, FNP-BC
Family Nurse Practitioner