How to Control Stress Eating: Step by Step
Stress eating can derail us from reaching our goals but it’s not just a lack of willpower. Discover why we love food so much, what patterns keep us stuck, and ultimately how to over come through a 10-step process.
Throughout the week you do well, work through some hard times, plan your meals, even hit your workouts…you’ve stuck with it.
Then Friday afternoon rolls around and the week of stress, work, kids, etc, and you pass your favorite bakery (or maybe milkshake place) and you find yourself stopping and grabbing a treat.
Of course, it tastes amazing, but quickly you regret your decision.
Only to find the next few days you keep falling into the same pattern.
Then it’s Monday again and you’re ready to take on the world.
If you’re like me this can be a recurring pattern whether it’s the weekend or those afternoon slumps at 3 o’clock and you see donuts sitting there on the counter so you grab one…Only to feel after that you let yourself down.
Regardless of when we get off plan, it is often the food cravings that pop up, sometimes out of the blue, that derail us and we find that we’re struggling to stick with our healthy eating plan.
It’s Not Just Your Lack Of Willpower
Too often we feel like we give in to our cravings because we don’t have enough willpower.
Or even that we’ve failed at our “dieting” attempts to lose and keep weight off because we’re not disciplined enough.
But that’s not it…
Most of the time it’s because you’re battling biology.
Eating food—along with drinking water, having sex, feeling safe, and being liked, are the fundamental drivers of motivation and behavior.
It’s because those things help humans stay alive.
Food = Not starving
Water = Not dying of thirst
Sex = Repopulating the human race
Being safe = Not dying
Being liked = Having a community to keep us safe rather than having to survive on your own
But when it comes to food, Stephen Guyenet in his book The Hungry Brain” mentioned two things specifically that drive our behavior to eat more.
- Calories – Because calories are the energy that keeps us alive
- Preferences and flavor – Because we as humans like food! And some foods and flavors even trigger overeating so that we eat more…Why? So that we can survive. An example of this is sugar. It gives us quick energy, and hits of dopamine so we eat more to get more energy or store energy for later use.
So if you think of the foods that are our “go-to” foods or ones that derail you, they usually are packed full of amazing flavors as well as calories.
Example – Broccoli vs ice cream
Broccoli, though some people enjoy it, for most doesn’t hold a candle to something like ice cream as far as the desire to eat and continue to eat.
Broccoli isn’t packed with tons of flavors or calories. But ice cream or any other thing like that is. The sugar, combined with milk and other ingredients make it a superb food for our brain to desire.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be ice cream— it could be things that are salty, sweet, crunchy, umami, sour, or any combination of those.
The more we eat it, the more we reinforce that it’s exciting and feels good to eat that food, and we start to form habits and even addictive behaviors toward those foods.
Why You Like Food So Much (And why it’s hard to say no)
To break through our cravings we first have to understand some of how behavior works and why we like food…
When we eat food, particularly super tasty calorie-rich foods like ice cream, chocolate, chips, candy bars, etc… the textures, amazing flavor, and loads of calories we get give our brain a nice hit of dopamine.
Dopamine is the thing that tells our brain that we like something. We use dopamine to learn. So we eat food that we like, and we learn that it is good food for survival…again, eating helps us stay alive.
And when something happens that you enjoy and feels good, the brain wants to increase the likelihood that we will continue to get that thing that made us feel good… again so it increases the likelihood that we stay alive.
Now the brain cannot conjure up food on its own to make us feel good. So it starts to pay attention and connects what we were doing or experiencing before we got the food with getting the food that made us feel good.
For example, when you grab a pastry from your favorite bakery on the way home or get your favorite snack from the vending machine on your way back from the bathroom…Your brain connects the dots.
And then it wants us to do that thing you were doing before again, and again, and again so that we can get that pastry or snack every time.
It realizes that the road you were driving on that leads to a pastry. Or that going to the bathroom and walking past the vending machine leads to a snack.
So you will then tend to do the behavior more often that leads to getting the pastry or candy bar.… (i.e. find a reason to take that way home, take a break and walk the same way past the vending machine)
So whatever you’re doing when the dopamine hits, you’re more likely to repeat it when the same situation arises again.
Your Brain Is A Party Animal!
One important thing to understand is that our brains are like party animals…meaning they always want to feel good.
And when they don’t feel good they will seek ways to feel good.
But it can’t always just produce its own dopamine to feel better.
This is why when we’re stressed, or bored, or angry, or anxious or any other emotion we know that we want to feel better.
Which leads us to seek behaviors to feel better like eating food or drinking alcohol, or anything else that feels good. It’s a coping mechanism.
Now we’ve mentioned lots of environmental examples going on around us, but it could also be emotions you were experiencing, thoughts you were having, or people you were with that lead up to you getting that hit of dopamine.
Those people, thoughts, and emotions then become associated with certain behaviors like eating food.
Because our brain wants us to feel good and stay alive whenever we’re feeling or exercising less than optimal— and learns to automatically turn to food to feel better.
Creating the habit or even addictive cycle of using food to cope with stress and emotions.
— Very fascinating side note – This is super interesting when it comes to chronic fatigue, pain, anxiety, and stress as well – If you have pain, low energy, stress etc, and use something to resolve that unpleasant feeling (energy drinks, pain killers, stress eating, etc thing that makes us feel good). Your body will not only encourage the behaviors you were doing before you got the “feel-good” but also make you feel the way you felt before you got the pleasure.
So if you feel pain and cope by using something to feel better. Your brain will create more pain. If you feel stress and anxiety and cope using something to feel better it will create more anxiety. If you feel tired and cope using something to feel better it will make you more tired.
So in some ways, we are actually creating chronic fatigue, chronic pain, or chronic stress and anxiety because we keep reinforcing that we need to feel those things first before we get the hit of dopamine.
Understanding Your Patterns that Make You Eat
It may be difficult to fight those biological and or even unconscious urges to eat those super tasty, calorie-rich foods if they are right in front of us. But if we can understand the cues to the craving and have a process to handle it we can be victorious over that craving without just white-knuckling it with willpower.
A cue is defined as a signal for action. So the cue for a craving is the event, circumstance, or emotion that you were experiencing right before you ate.
And when a cue is repeatedly connected with a positive outcome (i.e. you eat food), your brain makes that event, emotion, or circumstance a cue to eat.
So if you always take a certain way home and stop at a certain bakery and grab something… taking that route home is the cue to stop at the bakery.
In other words, it becomes a pattern or what we’d think of as a habit.
How To Change Your Desire For Cravings?
One of the easiest ways to not give in to cravings is to avoid or eliminate associated cues.
In the case of our bakery example— Take a different route.
If you know you can’t resist food when you walk past the pantry, try moving the food, or placing it somewhere you can’t readily see it.
If you know it’s too hard to resist when it’s at your house, then don’t buy it at the grocery store.
As my mom used to tell me—It’s easier to avoid temptation than to resist it.
And if you can’t avoid them, then make a plan or what I like to call an “escape route” of how you’re going to get out of that situation without giving in to the cravings.
Here’s an example of how this was showing up for Ashley, one of my clients. She found herself going to the bathroom around 3 pm. every day at work, and on the way back was grabbing her favorite snack out of the vending machine to give herself a pick-me-up.
Of course, this wasn’t helping her reach her goals of losing weight, feeling better, and ultimately being in control.
So she devised a plan:
- She knew eventually she’d have to go to the bathroom, so that wasn’t avoidable.
- Going to a different bathroom that didn’t have a vending machine on the way would be the best option… But that wasn’t possible because it was the only bathroom.
- So she figured there were a few options… First, she tried closing her eyes as she walked by the vending machine—which helped.
- She’s tried running or just walking fast past it— which also helped.
- Then she stopped bringing her wallet with her so regardless of whether or not she wanted something she couldn’t buy it.
One other thing she found was at home she replaced some snacks with healthier options because she could bring or at home, because she had to be in her house and couldn’t escape it altogether so she stopped buying the stuff that was a problem and replaced it with better, more nutritious snacks.
The next step for her was to check into why she was having cravings at 3:00 pm. Were there other cues happening other than walking down that path?
- A long day of work
- After certain meetings
- Maybe a particularly hard conversation
If could be lots of things that could cause the feeling to want to eat and act as a cue.
Of course, eliminating the cue can be an easy way to control your environment.
Some cues cannot be avoided all escape altogether but recognizing them can help work through them and solve them differently.
And then finding ways to find an escape route, even if you can’t avoid the situation altogether.
Remember that the weakest person in a strong environment will do better than the strongest person in a weak environment.
Step By Step Plan
It would be nice to always be able to avoid drink or food that derails us from our health goals but that’s not really possible.
If we truly want to be in control of our food choices we have to understand what is driving our food choice…those routine cues. And then we have to know what to do with them.
Here is a step-by-step process that can help us work through the cue and come out victorious of the craving.
These steps were something that I developed when I was going through addiction recovery to help break through my own addiction and addictive behaviors. I personally still use this process and teach this to clients in our Metabolism Reboot Program.
So it works!
Here are the steps:
Step 1 – The first thing you need to do is actually recognize that you are experiencing a craving or want to eat. Awareness is key!
Step 2 – Identify what was happening leading up to it… What were you thinking AND feeling before the craving or hunger started? Or what was happening? Good questions to ask are, “What seems to be lacking in my life?” or “What emotions am I experiencing right now?”
(Example: “just paid bills and feeling a financial pinch”, “at a family get-together and feeling like you’re missing out or deprived. On the way home and feeling stressed leaving for the day or still lingering)
Step 3 – Identify WHY you want to eat food based on the above thoughts and emotions you were having. (This is helpful to understand why you do what you do and the patterns we have)
Step 4 – Identify the self-talk you have going on. Example: “This little bit won’t hurt anything”, “I can have some and it won’t affect me”, “I can get right back on after”, “I can go burn off more calories to offset it”, “ I should just throw these away but my kids need them.”
Step 5 – Identify the food you want to eat and WHY. (Example: Rocky Road ice cream because it’s my mom’s favorite and we always ate it together when I was sad)
Step 6 – Using information from previous steps identify things in your environment that are contributing to having cravings. (Example: Still have snacks in the house, know that if you stop and get gas you can grab a snack, drive past your favorite ice cream place)
This is where you can figure out the environmental triggers that create patterns.
Step 7 – Now let’s work through it – Ask yourself, “How would it make me feel if I were to give into your craving?” And then on the flip side ask “How would I feel if I didn’t eat right? What’s the worst that could happen?”
Step 8 – Now before you make a decision to eat or not, ask yourself, “Will giving into this craving help me reach my short-term and long-term goals? Why or why not?”
Step 9 – Now the key – Identify things that you could do instead of turning to food to resolve the emotions. These things would ideally directly satisfy the emotions you were feeling from above but may not always be direct like if you’re tired, take a nap…
- Drink some water or sparkling water
- Go on a walk
- Take a nap
- Call a friend
- Exercise, or simply do some push-ups
- Take a bath
- Try eating something healthy
- Remind yourself that you are in control
- Practice gratitude
- Read your goals
The main goal here is to find ways to resolve the emotions that are driving your behaviors to feel better. I’ve given a few but finding ways that work for you is the key.
Step 10 – Go do the thing!
Also, write out a plan and identify what things you will do next time cravings come up or to avoid the craving altogether. That way you are able to stick with your healthy eating plan.
How To Be In Control Permanently
So obviously doing this once will help you get through that moment but will not change you forever. But imagine you did this every time a craving popped up or a cue for food.
Instead of just mindlessly giving in to food, or mindlessly driving down that road and stopping at that fast food place… several things would start to happen.
- First, you’d be far more intentional about your decisions and understand why you do the things you do.
- We start thinking before we act— which sounds funny but this is getting less and less common. And has become a really big problem in derailing us from our health goals.
- You start creating neuroplasticity, which we won’t cover in depth here but is our brain’s ability to change and rewire. Kind of like a muscle. The more you stimulate a muscle it changes. You get stronger, faster, more able to use it, more coordinated with it etc. Our brain is the same way.
- The more you repeat the process the more the brain rewires to go down a different path instead of the one that has kept us stuck.
- By doing healthy things to resolve the real triggers, not only do you stop giving into emotional eating which often helps us lose and maintain weight. But we will become a much more emotionally healthy and intelligent person.
And the cool part is — it works.
Get Yourself An Accountability Partner
One thing we’ve found incredibly helpful when we work with our clients is to have accountability. Not only does that help them lose weight faster but it helps them be able to bounce thoughts and emotions off to help you work through all of this. Our average result is 20-45 LBS in 6 weeks.
Now, go print off these steps, grab a journal, and let’s get to work!