As I was sitting at work recently, my phone was blowing up with messages from a family group text discussing what food will be served at our extended family holiday dinner. “Christmas is a time for love, happiness, cheer, and gaining ten pounds,” said my 18-year-old sister. For many that “gaining ten pounds” is a near truth and a result of “love, happiness, and cheer”, but for some it has more to do with the “busyness, expenses, stress”. Despite two nutrition degrees and full cognizance of what I put in my body, I finished two years of graduate school 20 pounds heavier than when I started. Needless to say, I have plenty of experience with the stress eating that makes a girl extra grateful for that stretchy, spacious winter wardrobe when the holidays roll around. While it may not save you from gaining an extra couple pounds this holiday season, I thought I would share the strategy I have developed to minimize the damage of stress eating and how to do it in the “healthiest” way possible.
My strategy has two elements: know your triggers and have a plan. When it comes to battling bad habits, awareness is everything. Whether you are a nervous snacker or frantic binger, knowing what your triggers are, events, feelings, or even people, will help you a) avoid them whenever possible, or b) have a contingency plan. For example, if you realize Nicholas Sparks movies hit too close to home and make you want to eat your feelings, you can employ option (a) and say no to “The Notebook” and “A Walk to Remember”. If your triggers come in a package that cannot be avoided, its time for option (b): have a plan. Know your cravings. Know what kind of flavors, textures, and temperatures hit the spot when you stress eat. Do a little research, identify foods that make the cut without bombing your diet, and make sure you ALWAYS have an ample supply at home, in your desk, in your car, wherever it may be. If I have a rough night sleep and wake up feeling unrested, my stress levels will go through the roof and come evening I’ll succumb to the need to wallow in comfort food. If I have canned low sodium black beans, shredded cheese, plain Greek yogurt, tomatoes and market fresh guacamole, and 100% whole wheat tortillas I can indulge in a satisfying burrito that is packed with protein, fiber, and some antioxidants. BUT, if all I have at home are salad makings, deli meats, and other slim pickings, you better bet I’ll be ordering pizza or headed to the closest chicken joint. This is just my scenario, yours may be different! If you’re a nervous muncher who needs something to chew on while you study for an impending exam or prepare for a high-stakes work presentation, try low-fat popcorn or flavored almonds (I like wasabi-soy flavored). Both are nutrient-dense options that will satisfy that craving for something salty. If your need is for something sweet, think dark chocolate! I keep a little stash of dark chocolate chips around the house for those moments when I need my chocolate therapy; they are packed with health-promoting polyphenols and a small portion with will sate my sweet tooth without racking up too many calories! You can also try your hand at healthy baking. I’ve recently begun exploring my options with coconut flour (great nutrition and naturally sweet) and stevia (natural sweetener with zero calories) and have made some pretty tasty guilt free cookies.
In an ideal world we would be in complete control and deny the urge to stress eat when the holidays (or anything stressors) take their toll. We can combat stress and anxiety through techniques such as mindful meditation, exercise, and maintaining our sleep cycle, but sometimes the stress does win. Eating can be an emotional thing, and often it makes you feel better. Indulgence is human, and everyone needs a little food comfort. But don’t let stress eating or junk food binging turn into a daily motif. Food can still be a comfort and a relief, but practice some self-love and put the right kind of foods in your body.
By: Danielle M. Ashley