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Is Stress Eating Derailing Your Diet?
Written by Dr. Kellyann Petrucci
When I talk with patients at my clinic, nearly all of them tell me that they overeat (or eat the wrong things) when they’re stressed. And do you know what one of the biggest triggers for stress eating is? You guessed it—the holidays.
Holidays are joyous, but they also put you under a ton of pressure. (Did I get the right gifts? Will my party be a success? Can I keep the relatives from fighting this year? How will I pay off all of these holiday bills?) This pressure, in turn, can cause you to reach for that bag of chips or bowl of leftover mashed potatoes.
Stress eating can pack pounds on you—especially around your belly—and I don’t want that to happen. So today, I’m sharing my three-step plan for handling holiday stress without reaching for food.
Step #1: Pay Attention.
Stress eating tends to be mindless eating—for instance, devouring a whole can of Pringles without even realizing that you’re doing it. So the first step in combating this habit is to become mindful of it. To do this, start training yourself to ask these questions every time you reach for a snack:
Do I want this food even though I’m not really hungry?
Am I craving this food because it’s comforting?
Am I reaching for this food because I’m upset, scared, bored, angry, or anxious?
If you answer “yes” to these questions, then you’re dealing with stress eating. You’re using food to get a quick hit of feel-good chemicals, or to distract yourself from the things that are making you anxious or unhappy. And while this may work in the short run, it’ll make you overweight and unhappy in the long run.
Step #2: Take control.
If you discover that stress eating is a problem for you, it’s time to start taking control over this habit. Here’s how.
First, tackle the problem from the food angle. Here are the three best ways to do this:
Stock your house with foods that are good for you, and remove temptations. You can’t grab a slice of cheesecake if it’s not there.
Prep healthy snack foods so they’re ready to go when you get a craving. For instance, freeze ingredients for smoothies, make big batches of veggie soup, prep salad ingredients and healthy dressings, and boil and shell a dozen eggs.
Make a list of foods that are okay to grab if you get the urge to snack when you’re stressed. For instance, I always keep bone broth on hand because it’s rich, comforting, and good for me. Other good choices include jicama sticks, green drinks, hard-boiled eggs, salads, or a handful of olives or coconut chips. When you absolutely crave a snack, stick to your list.
Next, address the stress angle. Here are some tips for cutting holiday stress down to size:
Cut back on holiday obligations. For instance, say no to parties you really don’t want to attend, or eliminate family traditions that you’re doing just because “we’ve always done it.” Pare your to-do list down to the activities that you and your family really enjoy.
Meditate, do yoga, or practice Tai Chi. Also, try my quick stress-busters, from drinking a cup of tea to petting your cat.
Ease your money pressures. Are you spending a fortune buying gifts for your friends and relatives? Then call them and say, “Money is a little tight for me. Is it okay if we just exchange simple gifts this year?” You’ll be surprised at how many of them will be happy to oblige because they’re over-extended themselves.
Stop trying to keep up with the Joneses! You don’t need to have the fanciest holiday display, the most impressive tree, or the biggest gingerbread house. Relax—nobody really cares.
Quit your job as the Happiness Fairy. Are you running yourself ragged because you think it’s your responsibility to make everyone in your family happy during the holidays? Do you freak out over the thought that if you get the wrong gift, or your holiday dinner isn’t perfect, someone may be upset? Well, get over it. As I said in an earlier post here, the best holidays are perfectly imperfect—and trying too hard to please everyone will just make you nuts.
Step #3: Make time for yourself.
Frequently, we turn to food during the holidays because we’re cheating ourselves out of what we really need. Instead of saying, “I need to take a break,” we keep shopping for that perfect gift. Rather than saying, “I need more sleep,” we stay up all night wrapping presents and fuel ourselves with cookies or ice cream.
You know what works better? Listening to those “I need” messages. If you need to relax for a few minutes, do it. If you need to get more sleep, do it. The world will still keep turning, and it’ll be easier to face it after you’ve taken care of yourself.
Stress eating is a habit, and it takes about three weeks to replace an unhealthy habit with a healthy one. So be patient with yourself, and celebrate each time you make a good choice during the holidays—for instance, saying “no” to a party you don’t want to attend, or reaching for a green drink instead of a cup of eggnog. Over time, it’ll get easier and easier to make those good choices… and that’s a habit that will keep you slim, happy, and healthy long after the holidays are over!
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