Ask the Expert: 3 Ways to Cope with Stress Eating

3 Ways to Cope with Stress Eating

I’m so stressed out these days, and I’m finding myself turning to sweets. How can I manage my cravings?

 Comfort food is real, and if ever there was ever a time when we all need a little comfort, that time is now, says Claire Walsh, MS, RDN, LD, senior nutrition and lifestyle modification program director for the YMCA of Greater Kansas City.


“It’s OK that being stressed makes you crave sweets,” she says. “There is absolutely no shame in feeling comforted by certain foods and food rituals.”

Walsh breaks down why we turn to our favorite foods during tough times and how to manage.

Why It’s Hard
“During times of stress, it can take a lot of mental energy to cope with the cause of the stress, and it doesn’t leave a lot of energy left to keep up with healthy habits. We reach for things that are familiar, easy and tied to happier times, such as Grandma’s apple pie, holiday desserts and Dad’s chili. Like so many others, my shelter-in-place coping mechanism was baking. It gave me a sense of accomplishment, a creative outlet, and obviously lots of yummy treats. Sometimes we need those routines to help us through a tough time, and that’s OK! Trying a new diet when your world is really stressful will likely lead to more stress, and ultimately an unsuccessful dieting attempt. When you try something that doesn’t succeed it’s easy to feel shame or guilt, which can in turn make it more challenging to continue making changes. This cycle of unsuccessful change and shame/guilt is really hard to break out of.”

Three Tips on How to Cope

1. Focus on what works for you.
Recognize that everyone’s life is different, so everyone wants to eat and needs to eat in different ways. Avoid one-size-fits-all plans. Think about what the stress-eating gives you. A distraction? Comfort? Also, how do you typically feel after a bout of stress eating? If you’re a little extra full but otherwise happy with your choice, maybe there’s nothing to change right now. On the other hand, if you’re uncomfortable or missing a balanced meal in exchange for stress-eating, then it’s time to consider a change.”

2. Keep your plans simple, realistic, and flexible.
“Everyone’s lives are changing all the time, especially now with so much uncertainty in the world. Set yourself up for success by choosing a few simple, realistic goals that are easy to follow, realistic given your current circumstances, and easy to adjust when your life inevitably changes again. It’s much easier to build off of success than failure! You might consider starting to schedule regular meals instead of snacking all day, drinking more water, and adding more veggies to your meals and snacks.”

3. Get support.
“Social networks can be hugely influential when you’re trying to change something in your life—for better or for worse. Connect with others who are working on similar goals and turn to evidence-based strategies to improve your health. This is what I love so much about the Y’s Weight Loss Program, and why I’m excited it’s returning in August with in-person sessions and new virtual options. It relies on research-backed activities to help people see how and where small changes in their homes and routines can lead to big differences in their health. Plus it provides an opportunity to connect with a supportive group of people all working to make positive changes in their lives.”

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