When life gets crazy, do you find yourself reaching for your secret cookie stash or polishing off the rest of your kid’s snacks? You’re not the only one: Nearly 40 percent of Americans say they’ve overindulged because of stress in the past month. Not only does stress eating take a toll on your waistline, but it can also mess with your digestion: Stress, overeating, and many comfort foods (think: chocolate, greasy foods, full-fat ice cream) are all recipes for heartburn.
The problem is, research shows that humans often gravitate toward sugary, high-fat foods under pressure. But it’s possible to outsmart your cravings and finally kick that stress-eating habit. Start with these five moves.
Ask yourself one question. Each time you go to eat something, ask yourself: Am I truly hungry? This simple check-in teaches you how to separate your emotions from physical hunger. If you realize that you’re really just stressed, take a few deep belly breaths. This helps you to decompress and refocus, says Kimberly Wolf, a Philadelphia-based registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator. To do it, place your hand on your stomach. Inhale slowly, feeling your belly rise, then exhale, feeling your belly fall.
Eat real meals. On hectic days, you may wind up skipping lunch or just snacking as you meal prep for the family. But nutritious meals can help prevent stress-related snack attacks, Wolf says. To keep meal-planning simple, Wolf recommends pairing a lean protein with whole grains and a veggie, such as a turkey-and-avocado sandwich on whole-wheat bread. Just stick to the equation, and eating healthy, regular meals will become second nature.
Get enough sleep. You may have trouble falling asleep because you’re stressed—or maybe you’re stressed because you have trouble falling asleep. Whether it’s the chicken or the egg, not getting enough zzzs sets the stage for binges. That’s because being sleep-deprived causes you to make more ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates hunger, and less leptin, the hormone that decreases your appetite. And when you’re sleepy and stressed, it also makes you grumpier and more likely to overreact. Try to log seven to nine hours of sleep each night. To help, try these tricks so you can sleep better.
Have a go-to stress buster. Have a list of relaxing activities, such as having an at-home spa day, painting your nails, or calling up a friend, that you can do when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Doing these activities can help you get out of your head and prevent you from defaulting to eating, Wolf says. Running short on time? Here are some activities you can do, no matter how much free time you have.
Lace up your sneakers. It’s no secret that exercising regularly can help keep your stress in check. After a workout session, you might find yourself feeling less anxious, more relaxed, and, all in all, better about yourself. Exercise might also help you eat better—after all, if you’re being good to your body by working out, you don’t want to ruin it by eating junk food afterward. In one study, 38 adults either worked out or rested for 15 minutes after doing a problem set of reading and math questions (stress!). Those who exercised wound up eating an average of 100 fewer calories at lunch afterward. The next time you’re feeling stressed, hit pause and work out, whether that’s at home with a personal trainer app, doing a workout at the playground, or getting a workout in before bed.
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