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We’ve all been there, knee deep in a bag of chips or halfway through a box of cookies, trying to quell our stress with treats. Emotional eating, or stress eating, is completely common and normal. And these days, the ample number of stressors in all of our lives can kick that drive for comfort up another notch.

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“Stress eating, or eating for reasons other than physiologic hunger, is not always a bad thing,” says Caroline Andrew, MD, an internal medicine physician and director of the medical weight management program at HSS. “When emotional eating becomes a problem is when we feel out of control, and when we are using food to relieve a discomfort that would be better addressed in a different way. Food often provides a temporary comfort, but then we are still left feeling anxious or stressed about the same issues as before we ate.”

First, it’s important not to be too hard on yourself for lapses in food judgment. “Try to be kind to yourself, and try to be patient,” says Dr. Andrew. “These behaviors aren’t easy to change, and they won’t change overnight. It takes time to shift them.” Blaming yourself for eating when you’re feeling stressed or emotional will just worsen your guilt, leading to more negative emotions – and potentially even more harmful eating behaviors, she adds.

Below are a few tips from Dr. Andrew for feeling more in control of your eating. However, do not hesitate in reaching out to a licensed professional if you feel you are in need of further support and guidance.

  • Wait 10 minutes. If you find yourself rushing to the cupboard for a snack, try to stop, take a deep breath, and then take a few minutes to think about how you are feeling. Are you really hungry? Or are you feeling anxious? Tired? Bored? If it’s not hunger, try addressing the feeling in a different way. For example, if you’re feeling anxious, maybe calling a friend to talk things through or a taking a quick walk around the block might make you feel better. Give the alternate activity a shot before you eat.
  • Make a list of activities you enjoy. Think of activities you enjoy doing that can keep you busy but that don’t involve food or eating. Examples could be working in your garden, reading a book, doing an exercise class or calling a friend or family member.
  • Eat regular and balanced meals. Try to eat meals instead of snacks to prevent binge eating when you’re feeling stressed or emotional. This goal is especially important when many of us are working from home and may be grazing on snacks throughout the day rather than eating meals. Try to make sure a meal includes some vegetables (ideally enough to fill up half of your plate) with protein such as chicken, fish, tofu or beans to help you feel full. Some healthy fats, like what you find in olive oil and avocado, and whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice and barley are also great to add. 
  • Prioritize sleep. Inadequate sleep can lead to increased hunger and cravings, especially cravings for food high in sugar. Work on improving your sleep hygiene by turning off the TV, phones and tablets at least an hour before bed.  Make sure your room is dark and the temperature on the cooler side and try to establish a wind-down routine before bed, such as having a cup of tea or taking a hot shower. Talk to your doctor if you are having trouble with sleep.
  • Try meditation. Meditating for even a few minutes a day can help decrease stress, make you more aware of your emotions and be really effective in addressing emotional eating. There are several great apps that can introduce you to the practice.
  • Get moving. Whether it’s a 10-minute stretching session or an hourlong run, physical activity is beneficial in so many ways and is an extremely effective way to reduce stress and improve mood. If we can find ways to reduce stress in our daily lives, we won’t use food as a temporary stress reliever as much.
  • Don’t deprive yourself too much. It is healthy and normal to eat a variety of foods in your diet, and that includes the occasional ice cream, cookie or handful of potato chips.  Too much restriction can lead to unhealthy binging. Allow yourself to have treats, just in moderation. You may want to consider speaking to a registered dietitian or a physician for further guidance, since it can be challenging to figure this out on your own.

For more information, contact HSS Weight Management at 212.606.1570 or click here for their website.

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About the Expert

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