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Are you a “stress eater?” Here’s what I do about it!

By Robyn Openshaw, MSW | Aug 26, 2014

Have you noticed that most people line up in two camps, when they’re under heavy stress: the people who don’t eat enough, and the people who overeat?

Nikki, our operations manager, asked me recently to write on stress eating. She’s in the hot-seat in a major new venture we’re working on, and both she and I have been under considerable stress.

So I agreed—it’s an important topic.

I probably can handle more stressors than the average person and seem to thrive in a space of 95-99% capacity and a significant amount of pressure. But there’s always a “too much,” and I’m pretty sure every human being on the planet has gotten into that “red zone.” When I reach that threshold, with stress, where I tip over into “I’m not happy, and I’m not coping well,” my reaction is to NOT eat much.

The reason is, I’m not enjoying the food anyway, since my stomach is tied in knots! So I eat functionally. In these periods of my life, I eat the healthiest. The only food I eat is just to meet caloric needs, so it’s vegetable juices and green smoothies and the like. I usually drop several pounds below my normal weight.

(In periods of my life when I was overweight, it was because I was bored and NOT stressed! A mixed blessing.)

You may be very different than this. I’d love to know what you do, to check yourself, from eating bad foods just because you’re stressed out?

The most helpful thing I’ve come across is a book on “mindful eating” I read many years ago. I think it was called Intuitive Eating. And I didn’t finish it, because it was one of the those books where, 50 pages in, I was like, “Yeah, I got it. I don’t need to read the whole book.”

But the authors taught a method of checking in with yourself. Getting very purposeful about eating. In other words, stopping every few bites to ask yourself a few questions:

“Am I hungry?”

“Do I really want this?”

“Why am I eating right now?” If the answer is not “because I’m hungry,” then ask yourself, “Am I feeling emotional right now and eating to make those feelings go away? If so, is there something else I could be doing to help myself out of this situation?”

It’s important to always stay “in choice,” giving yourself permission to eat whatever you want. That way, when you opt out, you can do it with your chin up:

“I can if I want to, but I choose not to!”

Then it feels like living a purposeful life, rather than denying yourself. Repeatedly denying oneself generally leads to binging later, creating a cycle of sabotage.

Then, if you’re not sure if you are hungry and REALLY want more, wait five minutes to see if you have another serving, or whether you choose the dessert.

Almost every time I require myself to wait five minutes, at the end of it, I don’t even want the dessert, or to eat more of the food.

The book reminded us to plug into the fact that satiety, or the feeling of being “satisfied,” comes 5 or 10 minutes after you stop eating. So, let it catch up. Stop eating sooner, and check in with yourself. If you wait, giving yourself permission to have more in 5 minutes if you still want to, you’ll end up eating less.

Now these ideas aren’t mine, nor are they about choosing whole foods, which is my biggest agenda. (The authors’ premise is, there are no bad foods, but you have to eat them only minimally. I disagree with that, of course. I think living in the “real world,” we all eat things that aren’t good for us, to a greater or lesser extent, but there are certainly bad foods!)

Until reading that book, I was not very mindful about my eating. Now I stop and check myself more regularly. I also try to not eat anything while working at my computer, unless it’s something super-healthy like my quart of green smoothie. If I eat at my computer, I’ll overeat, being consumed in the email I’m writing or topic I’m researching! Suddenly I’ll notice I ate twice as much as I intended to! (I learned this one the hard way.)

The “mindful eating” principles are good, and they’ve helped me significantly. Consequently, my weight is in check and my health is better.

Posted in: Books, Mind/Body Connection, Nutrition, Standard American Diet, Whole Food

2 thoughts on “Are you a “stress eater?” Here’s what I do about it!”

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  1. Virginia Edwards says:

    Thank you for this article. I tend to eat when I stress. It is NOT mindful eating, because my subconscious mind is focused on trying to feel better, so I subconsciously eat without thinking. Next thing you know, I’ve had two bananas instead of one, etc. I do tend to eat when I am stress, but when my boyfriend passed away, it was the opposite. So it depends on the level of stress for me. I lost so much weight, my pants were falling off. This is a great article and I’m going to practice these mindful eating tips.

  2. Jennifer says:

    These mindful tips are great! I also read “Women, Food and God” by Geneen Roth, which gave me some good insight on how I viewed food. I would not say I was ever a binge eater, didn’t eat a cake in one sitting, or out of the fridge while crying. (that’s the vision of an emotional eater that I carried in my head). But I could eat a package of cookies in a few days, all by myself, 3 or 4 at a time until they were gone. We (me and the cookies) could not occupy the same space at the same time, one had to be gone and it was usually the cookies. 🙂 I realized that I definitely thought there was good and bad food and punished myself for giving into the bad food. I’ve also realized, mostly through healthy eating and cleansing the SAD diet out of my system, that I was addicted to processed food, mostly sugar. Since I now no longer have much white sugar, if any, I am much more in control of my eating. Too much sugar now gives me a headache, which is a blessing in disguise. The sad part is that it took me waaay too long to figure out it was the sugar and I kept going back to trying to have “a little bit” which I think speaks to the addictive nature of the substance. I agree with Robyn that at least for me, I can’t have a “little bit” of everything. This just doesn’t work for me. I try and eat whole foods, if I buy something packaged I read the ingredient list. (ugh did you realize some companies put yellow dye in pickles!?) Too many ingredients or a bunch of stuff I can’t pronounce, doesn’t go in the cart! Lastly, I’ve finally kicked diet soda – can’t say it enough- this has changed the way I feel, the way my body feels. It’s completely weird and I don’t know how else to describe it – but I finally feel in control and able to lose more weight! I’m not even tempted – and diet soda was my stress go to! When work was bad and it was that time of the month I could have 3-4 cans in a day. It was my comfort, that pop and gentle fizziness would melt away my stress. Now, I don’t even give it a second thought!

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