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Being a mom is the hardest job there is and for some moms, stress eating is a constant challenge on any given day.
Yet ever since the coronavirus pandemic made its way to the U.S., and moms were forced into a new way of life as they try to manage work, distance learning, cooking meals, cleaning and everything else all at the same time, stress eating has become an even bigger obstacle.
In fact, a recent survey found 70 percent of people are stress eating, overeating and eating unhealthy food.
What’s more, for moms who experience anxiety, or have an anxiety disorder like I do, stress eating can feel impossible to break free from.
Although you know all that stress eating isn’t healthy, recent research should put some of your concerns about weight gain to rest.
According to a survey from Withings, a maker of smart scales, watches and health monitors, users gained only .21 pounds between March 22 and April 18.
HOW TO COPE WITH STRESS EATING
To figure out how to cope with stress eating, I think we all need to let go of the mom guilt and give ourselves some grace during this time. These are stressful times after all, and we all have legitimate, individual stressors. This too shall pass. In the meantime, give these tips a try.
1. ASK YOURSELF, AM I REALLY HUNGRY?
Between worries about our health and safety, work and money, and how to cope with social distancing and isolation, there’s no denying that we all have a lot of stress these days.
You probably have work deadlines and no time to get work done.
You can’t figure out Common Core math or how to use Google classroom and to make matters worse, your kid wants to know why.
Your kids have asked for a snack for the umpteenth time, your kitchen sink is filled to the top with dishes and the question what’s for dinner, has become a joke.
Your kids are fighting, crying, and need to get outside.
So, in the midst of a stressful moment or at the end of the day, making your way to the pantry for something salty, sweet and indulgent seems like the only way to cope.
It feels really good—and science backs it up—but after that first bite, you need more and more to get that same high, and the cycle continues every day.
So when cortisol levels are high, it can be tough to figure out if you’re really hungry or you just want something to nosh on.
The difference however, is that true hunger unfolds gradually and has tell-tale signs.
Your stomach will growl, your energy levels will be low (not the same as the fatigue you’re already feeling), and you may feel moody or even hangry.
Try waiting it out for 10 or 20 minutes or drink a glass of water since thirst or dehydration can often feel like hunger. If you still feel hungry and it’s been a few hours since you last ate, then you probably are hungry.
2. EAT REGULAR MEALS AND SNACKS
If you skip meals or forget to eat, when you finally do sit down to a meal, you overeat.
Eating regular meals and snacks throughout the day is a good way to keep hunger at bay, keep blood sugar levels steady and energy levels up.
When you eat enough during the day, it also prevents overeating at night.
What you eat is also important so make sure you’re eating a combination of protein, fiber, and healthy fats.
While eating at regular intervals throughout the day can help you stay on track, eating on a strict schedule isn’t necessary. If you ate 4 hours ago but you’re not hungry, you don’t have to eat. Likewise, if it’s only been 2 hours and your stomach feels empty, maybe a healthy snack is in order.
3. KNOW YOUR TRIGGERS
To better manage stress eating, think about what exacerbates your stress levels and raises anxiety.
While there’s not a whole lot you can do to prevent your kid from getting frustrated with school, or your current financial situation, there are ways to set limits on other things.
For example, instead of having push notifications of news alerts on your phone, and scrolling through social media to decompress, set limits on your media consumption. Maybe that means you’ll only watch the late night news or have a quick 10-minute social media check in per day.
It’s also important to know what your food triggers are so you can do your best to avoid them. For me, it’s anything sweet but even my nightly habit of drinking tea can lead to a food binge. If you know that potato chips are a trigger for you to overeat, don’t buy them the next time you go grocery shopping.
4. PLAN AHEAD OF TIME
One of the best ways I have found to avoid reaching for unhealthy foods and overeating is to plan ahead of time.
When you return from the grocery store, wash, prep and cut up fruits and vegetables. Store them in clear, glass containers in the refrigerator or keep a fruit bowl out on the countertop. Or set aside individual bags with smoothie ingredients.
Related: How to Make Smoothies For Kids
5. TRACK IT
With all that you have to do lately, tracking your food may seem like too much.
Yet if you can get into a habit of doing it every day—it only takes 2-3 minutes— it can help you keep track of what you’re eating and how much.
I use the Lose It! app, but you can find another that works for you or use a food journal instead.
6. PUT HEALTHY FOODS FRONT AND CENTER
We don’t keep junk food in the house, but I tend to reach for peanut butter, raisins or homemade muffins when I’m stress eating.
Putting foods I want to avoid high up on the pantry shelf or hiding them behind the coffee for example, helps.
Although it’s not always perfect, out of sight, out of mind can be a good way to prevent overeating.
7. GO TO BED A HALF AN HOUR EARLIER
While most people are working late into the night or up because they’re stressed out, getting enough sleep, and quality sleep, these days has been even more of a challenge.
Still, without enough sleep, ghrelin and leptin—two hormones that affect appetite—can become unbalanced and cause you to overeat.
If you can turn in early—even if it’s 30 minutes earlier—it can help to curb stress eating.
8. HAVE A LIST OF DISTRACTIONS
If you’re craving carbs or have a strong desire to munch, but you know you’re not hungry, change your environment. Close the refrigerator, pantry, walk out of the kitchen or brush your teeth.
Then, have a list of distractions at the ready to get your mind off food.
Try taking a walk, doing a quick workout, writing, listening to music or a podcast, painting your nails, taking a shower, or reading something other than the news.
Of course, if you’re cooking dinner or cleaning up, this is easier said than done.
So if you can’t get away, sip on water, or nosh on something healthy like cut-up vegetables.
As I said, I struggle with emotional eating on a daily basis. A few months ago I was also concerned that food had become an idol in my life, controlling every aspect of it. I’d wake up thinking about what I was going to eat, when I was going to eat and think about it throughout the day.
I’m a big fan of Lysa TerKeurst and remembered that she had written “Made to Crave: Satisfying Your Deepest Desire with God, Not Food,” so I read it.
Through Lysa’s own journey and the Bible verses she includes, I had a better understand of what a healthy relationship with food looks like. While I’m still on a journey, I consistently turn to the Lord in prayer to help me break free from stress eating everyday.
10. FIND WAYS TO HANDLE TOUGH FEELINGS
Meeting a friend, having a conversation with your partner without the kids interrupting, or getting out of the house have all become more challenging, or even impossible, during the pandemic.
Yet there are ways to help manage stress without eating.
Take a bath, journal or write down what you’re grateful for, hop on a Zoom call with a friend, or practice Yoga.
Need more ideas? Check out “50 More Ways To Soothe Yourself Without Food,” by Susan Albers, PsyD.
11. TAKE A DEEP BREATH
When stress levels are heightened, one of the best ways to avoid overeating is to calm the body and calm the mind.
Here’s a quick deep breathing exercise: exhale for 4 seconds, inhale for 4 seconds, hold it for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds.
You can also try progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing all of the muscles in your body, then releasing and repeating it a few times.
12. LET YOURSELF EAT
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, stress eating gets the best of you and you give in—that’s OK.
Instead of telling yourself you can’t eat that cookie—which will only make you want it more— it’s ok to give yourself permission to take a bite.
Food is comforting after all, but try not to make it your only way to cope with stress.
Also, do your best to be mindful of portions and eat mindfully. Sit down at the table, use a small plate, take small bites, eat slowly and savor each one.