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How to Stop Stress Eating (and Finally Lose Weight)

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“How do I stop stress eating?” is a common question in the nutrition space. The ability to make nutrition choices that keep you tracking towards your goals when you’re stressed can make a huge difference in your rate of progress.

The kids are getting the best of you, the house is a mess, that work project is proving a bit more complex than anticipated, that nagging injury is preventing you from sticking to your fitness routine, you are all caught up on your favorite Netflix shows but are way behind on your thesis project. All perfectly human and relatable stressors of life!

Suddenly, those kettle chips in the back of the pantry start whispering your name. Then, that whisper becomes a scream. After the first “crunch”, that inner dialogue starts to kick in:

  • “Why am I doing this? Why do I stress eat?” *crunch crunch* 
  • “I’m totally stress eating but I’m not going to stop” *crunch crunch* 
  • “I needed this after today” *crunch crunch* 
  • “I’ve been eating so good lately, now I’ve thrown it all away” *crunch crunch* 
  • “UGH how do I stop stress eating for good?” *crunch crunch* 
  • “I can’t believe I gave in like this, I am a failure” *crunch crunch… no more chips*  

If stress eating applies to you, then congratulations, you are officially human! At WAG Nutrition, our coaches work with members to identify where the stress is coming from and solve it from there. 

This begs the question, “why do I stress eat in the first place?”. Let’s dig in!

Why Do I Stress Eat? The Million Dollar Question

Before you read any further, let’s get on the same page about a few things. What is stress eating and why does it happen? 

What is Stress Eating?

Stress eating happens when people use food to help them deal with stressful situations [1]. 

There could be a number of reasons why you have a tendency to stress eat. Getting to the root cause will take deliberate thinking, self-reflection, and action to correct. 

What Causes Stress Eating?

Reflect on your daily life and connect the dots between the cause of stress and your urge to stress eat. Here are some examples:

  • Every time you have a tight deadline at work, you come home and crave all the things… chips, chocolate, wine, ice cream or anything you can get your hands on.
  • A few days before your period starts your hunger levels skyrocket and everything starts looking like the perfect snack.
  • An argument with your significant other or family member leads to not eating all day and increased hunger levels at night. You binge Netflix with a bowl of chips as a way to get your mind off of the things upsetting you.

Have you found yourself in a similar stress eating situation? 

Whatever the reason(s) may be, the takeaway is that stress eating is often preceded by a specific situation or trigger event. Keyword: Trigger. 

Stress eating is the response, not the trigger itself. This is why taking the time to dig deep and identify those triggers is so key.

Does Stress Cause Weight Gain?

The short answer is yes, stress can cause weight gain.

Stress eating is often unplanned, not an intentional addition to a balanced day. It is common to go overboard in quantity (eating many serving sizes) and quality (grabbing for snacky options). Let’s be honest, you’re not over there stress eating grilled chicken breasts and veggies, right?

When you eat more calories than your body needs to fuel your activity, this can cause weight gain. Cortisol, your stress hormone, can also cause increased hunger signaling which can trigger you to eat more calories [2]. 

Can Stress Cause Weight Loss?

On the flip side… Can stress cause weight loss? The answer to that is also “yes”.  

Confused? Check out this article if you are curious or want to learn more: Does Stress Affect Weight Loss?

Regardless of your health and nutrition goals, stress eating is bound to impact you in some way, shape or form. Whether your goal is weight gain or weight loss, stress eating will undoubtedly throw you off your game and off your plan. Especially if it is a recurring theme or habit in your day-to-day life. 

At this point, you may be thinking: “That’s great… but I still don’t know how to stop stress eating!”

How Do I Stop Stress Eating?

A stress-eating cycle is not a fun cycle to live in. Bicycles, tricycles, or strength cycles are the way to go! All joking aside, stress eating cycles can be very defeating. Just when you start committing to being consistent, something triggers you and the cycle takes you for a ride. 

“Ugh, how do I stop stress eating?”

Let’s focus on what you can do next time to break the cycle and learn how to stop stress eating for good. At WAG Nutrition, we encourage you to do something that might feel a little counterintuitive at first…

Use Compassion to Stop Stress Eating

Instead of beating yourself up about stress-eating, take a self-compassionate approach. This might be the first time in your life you do this, and that’s okay. It can feel a bit strange at first.

When you feel bad about yourself or your actions, it can make stress eating worse. This means it can be the perfect time to start practicing self-compassion. 

We are not talking about ignoring your problems or giving yourself permission to eat whatever you want. True self-compassion is an attitude of generosity, honesty, and kindness towards yourself. Self-compassion can prevent you from sinking into that “screw it” mindset that often leads to stress-eating or even binging.

Here’s how to do it effectively: when you “mess up”, give yourself a break. Step back and look at the big picture. Notice what you are doing, thinking, and feeling; without judging it. 

It is not a “mess up” or a mistake if you can learn from it and move forward in kindness. If anything, it was a necessary step on your longer-term health journey. 

If this feels kind of overly sentimental at first, we get it. Just keep practicing. Like any skill, self-compassion takes practice and repetition. In time, you will learn to see just how effective and powerful it can be.

Tips Stop Stress Eating

Here are a few simple tips to prevent stress eating. You can start implementing these right away:

  1. Treats are more tempting when hunger is high so don’t grocery shop hungry. It is easier to use willpower and say no “once” when passing something in the grocery store than to grab it and bring it home and have to say “no” every time you open our pantry.
  2. Write a list before you go to the store, and stick with it. Not only will you be focused on just the items in your list but you will most likely be saving money not buying “random” items. Win, win!
  3. Do something productive. Being productive makes you feel good. Plus, doing something with your hands (so you can’t put them in a bag of chips) helps. Go for a walk, get back to that online course you started months ago, organize your closet, finally clean the kitchen, call a friend or loved one etc. Doing something that makes you feel proud will help turn around your stress.
  4. Ask yourself “does food solve my problem?”. Remember when you identified your stress eating triggers? Go back to that list and ask if overeating will really make you feel better and make that stressor go away. 99.9% of the time the answer is “nope, it will just make me MORE stressed.”

For more stress eating tips check out this article on curbing your emotional macro spending!

How to Stop Stress Eating at Work

You are at work, the staff room is filled with treats and food, and you are having one of those days! HELP! What can you do to stop stress eating at work? 

  • Plan your day in advance. What are you going to have for lunch? What are your snacks? 
  • Water, water, water - hydration helps curb hunger
  • Reflect on whether or not a “tempting” food in the staff room might be ineffective vs. effective for you and your goals 
  • Can you step outside and get some fresh air? Sometimes a change of scenery can do wonders to your mindset! 
  • Don’t deprive yourself! Depending on your goals, a reasonably-sized slice of the homemade banana cake your co-worker brought to celebrate her birthday is likely just fine.

Plan ahead and have a backup plan. Remember to communicate with your coach. Your WAG coach is there to help you learn to handle and manage these situations successfully.  

How to Stop Stress Eating at Night

It is Wednesday evening. Work is over for the day, kids are asleep, and it is time for a little “you time”. But that “you time” quickly turns into “you and snack time".

Are you bored? Are you actually hungry? What is, really, going on? 

Here is a tip: Have a plan! 

It is one of the most overused pieces of advice for a reason. Because it works! 

Do you notice a pattern in yourself of constantly fighting off late-night snacking urges? Do you notice that urge oftentimes turning into mindless stress eating? If you do notice these kinds of patterns, then you can come up with a game plan that sets you up for success going forward. 

How to Stop Stress Eating: An Exercise

What if you could break that cycle?

It all starts with self-reflection because those feelings and behaviors came from somewhere. At WAG, we often ask our clients to work through an exercise to help them notice and adjust their stress eating patterns.

It’s okay if you don’t have any huge “a-ha!” moments the first time you go through it. Try the stress eating exercise a few times and you will begin seeing patterns and trends. Chances are high you will start noticing connections between certain situations, people or feelings that led to overeating or other challenging food situations. 

Remember, you can always reach out to your WAG one-on-one nutrition coach, but implementing the steps above is a stress-eating start. Your self-confidence builds and strengthens over time and with past evidence of success. Celebrate and track your wins, and refer back to them when you’re feeling challenged! All the small things add up!

Get a Taste of WAG

The WAG Crash Course is OPEN for enrollment. This 30-day course will teach you the ins and outs of macro tracking, building healthy lifestyle habits and sustaining results without restricting the foods you love. Get personalized macros from a WAG Coach, join the members-only Facebook Group and participate in quarterly Live Q&A sessions with WAG Coaches.

  1. (2018, April 15th) How Do I Stop Stress Eating. Medical News Today. Retrieved From https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320935

Epel, E., Lapidus, R., McEwen, B., & Brownell, K. (2001). Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 26(1), 37-49. doi: 10.1016/s0306-4530(00)00035-4.

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Posted by Emily Camacho
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Emily is a Certified WAG Nutrition Coach and part of the WAG Writing Team. As a teacher and a nutrition coach, Emily found her calling to help people through their journey to find a nutrition approach that works for them and their lifestyle.

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