How can I avoid eating junk food when stressed?

Kirsi Bhasin
Nutrition & Dietetics

Stress eating is common problem that a lot of people face. Oftentimes, in the face of any strong emotion, we feel drawn to food to help mask those emotions. Sometimes this urge to eat feels irresistible, but there are a few easy things you can do to combat emotional eating. The first thing you can do when you sense yourself reaching for that bag of chips or candy bar, or whatever junk food fix you tend to reach for when feeling stressed, is ask yourself if you are really hungry. Before you take a bite or grab your snack, stop for a second and pay attention to what you are really feeling. If you are genuinely hungry, tell yourself to reach for a healthier snack like a fruit or a handful of almonds. If you’re not hungry, try paying attention to what’s really bothering you.

The next step in avoiding stress eating is dealing with the problem at hand. Figuring out what is stressing you out, whether it be a fight with a loved one, a problem at work, or just feeling generally overwhelmed, will help you to rationally deal with the problem. Let your emotions wash over you instead of trying to push them under the rug and mask them with food. Ignoring your stressors will only make them worse. Take a few minutes to think about all of the things that are causing you stress, and then try to tackle them one at a time.

Another great tactic you can use to avoid stress eating is finding an activity you love that will take your mind off of the cravings. Try going for a walk, calling a friend, picking up a book, or doing anything you enjoy that will calm you down and take your mind off of whatever is stressing you out. 

When stress hits, cortisol tells our brains that we are hungry, so we then seek out a meal. Unfortunately, cortisol’s message to our brain also says we want to eat sugary, fatty foods—all the wrong foods for stopping the cycle. Rich, sugary foods don’t do much for us but contribute to insulin swings, poor blood-sugar balance, as well as extra pounds, pot bellies, and worse moods. What’s more, the usual culprits—ice cream, cookies, Snickers bars—register in our brain’s reward center in ways that make us crave them even more.

The following are two strategies that reduce the magnetic pull of sugary and fatty foods.
  • First, eat lots more lean protein. This will both give you more energy and fight hunger pangs, which can play games with your moods. Protein is key to mood stability, due to its effect on maintaining a healthy blood-sugar balance, which in turn keeps certain hormones like insulin in check. Carbohydrates, especially low-quality ones, aren’t nearly as sustaining as good-quality proteins, such as fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, poultry, and even walnuts. Proteins are required for growing hair and nails, and they are the building blocks for enzymes and hormones, including the ones that participate in keeping you glowing beautiful.
  • Second, write down the top five guilty treats you tend to reach for when you’re stressed. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Chunky Monkey, chips, cookies, M&Ms, whatever. Then, don’t eliminate them entirely. However, when you do succumb, eat only half of what you normally would. Or less: Sometimes a bite or two will satisfy you. That’s it—an easy step toward reducing your stress, steadying your weight, and shrinking your belly.

From The Mind-Beauty Connection: 9 Days to Less Stress, Gorgeous Skin, and a Whole New You by Amy Wechsler.

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    Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.