How to Stop Stress Eating: 3 Uncommon Tools for Ending Emotional Eating

This LEGO looks worried, probably because he doesn't know what to eat.

This LEGO looks worried, probably because he doesn't know what to eat.

We are currently living through extremely stressful times.

If you find yourself responding by “stress eating,” know that you are not alone.

One of the top issues faced by clients in our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program is emotional or stress eating. With the eruption of the pandemic, these episodes have only increased.

Today, we’re going to show you exactly how we address emotional eating with our clients, including when it’s – GASP – actually okay to stress eat. 

Here’s what we’ll cover in today’s guide:

Let’s jump right in.

What Is Stress Eating? (A Video from NF Kitchen)

[embedded content]

The above video from Coach Justin on Team NF was live-streamed to Nerd Fitness Prime members

Justin covers three important lessons I want to highlight, but before we do that, we should ask ourselves a question: 

“What exactly is stress eating?”

Stress eating is consuming food in response to negative emotions like fear, anger, or sadness.

When we stress eat, food is being used to solve a problem. Now, unless we’re actually hungry, it’s likely a problem that food itself isn’t meant to solve.

That’s stress or emotional eating.

Here’s what compounds the whole problem: stress eating itself can make us feel guilty. We often feel terrible once our spoon hits the bottom of the pint of ice cream.

This can drive more negative emotions, which can trigger even more stress eating.

And the pattern continues.

A gif of Tina saying "I'm out of control."

A gif of Tina saying "I'm out of control."

We’ll talk about ways to break this cycle in a moment, but before we do, we need to create some tools to identify it in the first place. 

What Causes Stress Eating? (Lesson #1: Playing Detective)

It's time to play detective to learn about stress eating, like Pikachu here.

It's time to play detective to learn about stress eating, like Pikachu here.

You may have been surprised in our video above when Coach Justin gives permission to  stress eat.

Countertintuitive and seemingly counterproductive, I know. But this is going to be important for two reasons.

First: we need to curb the guilty feelings about stress or emotional eating. 

I started this guide off by highlighting the frequency of stress eating amongst our Online Coaching clients

You are not the only one struggling with this.

Most humans do.

And robots with human-like emotions and taste buds

A gif of Eva, who might be craving some food because of stress.

A gif of Eva, who might be craving some food because of stress.

We’ll come back to this idea again, because ending the shame of emotional eating will be critical for moving forward. 

Second: allowing ourselves to stress eat will help us learn why we do it.

We’re going to be playing detective here, to see if we can piece apart your actions and routines.

This man's book says "how to be a detective" so you know it's legit

This man's book says "how to be a detective" so you know it's legit

At the end of the day, our lives are a cumulation of habits. Stress eating is one such habit.

So let’s learn about it!

To do so, we’re gonna need to record some Emotional Eating Notes

During an episode of stress eating, it’s important to ask ourselves:

  • What am I doing?
  • What am I feeling? (Both physically and emotionally)
  • What am I thinking about?
  • What time is it?
  • Where am I?
  • Who am I with?

Ideally, we’ll start to ask yourself these questions:

  • An hour or two before the eating episode
  • Right before it
  • During it
  • Right after it

The purpose of these Emotional Eating Notes?

To look for patterns!

Detective Pikachu is holding up a magnifying glass in this gif.

Detective Pikachu is holding up a magnifying glass in this gif.

Perhaps you’ll notice some of the following:

  • “After my recent Tuesday morning conference call, when I got grilled by my company’s leadership, I grabbed some chocolate chip cookies. This happened the week before too.”
  • “Around 2pm, when I get the ‘afternoon slumps,’ I normally grab a Coca-Cola. This little boost gets me through the end of the day. This is almost a daily practice.”
  • “Last Sunday evening, when thinking about the start of the workweek, I had a couple glasses of wine. When looking back at my notes, this takes place at the end of most weekends.”

We’re looking for patterns to help us understand what drives our stress eating. 

The most important thing about this process: withholding judgment.

We’re looking at our notes for clues into our psyche. Whatever we captured is okay.

If you order pizza every Thursday after talking with your overbearing mom (of course, she means well), step one is to recognize it.

Oftentimes, this awareness step alone can help shift behavior. “Oh, I’m reaching for a beer like I normally do after ending my workday. Typical Me.”

After creating some notes on what spurs our emotional eating, it’s time to think about some alternatives for coping with stress.

How Do I Stop Mindless Eating? (Lesson #2: The Stress Response Menu)

This photo has two LEGO characters in it, with one holding their stress response menu.

This photo has two LEGO characters in it, with one holding their stress response menu.

After documenting what sets off our stress eating, we need to formulate a plan on what to do when our anxiety rises.

That means it’s time to build a…

Stress Response Menu!

Our Stress Response Menu will be a list of actions or activities you can do to de-stress outside of eating.

Ideally, you’ll do them before an eating episode, but they can be done during or after the fact too.

In other words, if you only realized you were stress eating when your hand reaches the bottom of the Doritos bag, no problem, you can do your stress response activity right then. 

The purpose of the Stress Response Menu is to reward yourself with a small moment of self-love, whenever your anxiety levels are too much.

Here are some ideas for activities to place on your Stress Response Menu:

  • Close your eyes and take five deep breaths (Coach Justin’s go-to move)
  • Drink a large glass of water
  • Take a short walk
  • Go listen to one of your favorite songs
  • Do a quick stretching routine
  • Write in your journal
  • Play with your dog
  • Shout at the sky

A gif of Grandpa Simpson shouting at a cloud.

A gif of Grandpa Simpson shouting at a cloud.

The more the activity from your Stress Response Menu can match your personal goals, the better. 

In other words, if you’re trying to build muscle, some push-ups might be the perfect de-stresser. 

Just make sure it’s something you won’t dread doing. 

A combination of a “de-stressor” and a “reward.”

This is important, as Coach Justin mentions that many of his clients only reward themselves with food. The self-love they practice only takes place in the kitchen. 

Our menu above will help us develop some more options, not solely based on food.

To make the most of your Stress Response Menu:

#1) Make the activities short and easy. 

You should feel confident that you can do every item on your list. So avoid activities that will take longer than 10 minutes to complete. 

Also, set yourself up for success by hacking your Batcave:

  • If you’re going to journal when stressed, keep your diary open on your work desk.
  • If you’re going to drink water before any emotional eating, keep your full glass  near you. 
  • If you’re going to take a short walk, keep your kicks near the door.

Don’t set yourself up for failure by picking overly complicated or burdensome activities.

#2) Place your Stress Response Menu somewhere visible. 

Once you make your list, print it out and place it in your kitchen or pantry (or wherever you typically stress eat). 

You could also write out a couple of your favorite activities and attach them to your refrigerator. 

If it’s right in front of you, it’ll be harder to ignore (however, it’s okay to ignore it from time to time, as we aren’t striving for perfection).

Just please don’t write it and then stick the list in the junk drawer that opens to another dimension.

Yeah, don't put your stress response menu in a portal like this.

Yeah, don't put your stress response menu in a portal like this.

You never can find anything in that drawer.

#3)Track your usage of the Stress Response Menu. 

This will help us in two ways:

  • First, by tracking your usage, you’ll start to feel better about using the SRM. You’ll see an accumulation of all the times you successfully deployed a stress response, helping you visualize the momentum you’re building. 
  • Second, the data will help you understand your patterns of emotional eating. Maybe five deep breaths steered you away from ice cream but the large glass of water did not. You can then use this information to update and revise your response plan.

For the first point, Coach Justin has his clients keep a “Jar of Awesome.”

Every time they have a small win in the day, like taking five deep breaths instead of chugging soda, they place a marble or small token in a jar. After a while, the jar will have a decent amount of marbles or “small wins” in it.

This will then stand as a visual reminder of all the progress being made, proof of their ongoing wins.

How Common Is Stress Eating? (Lesson #3: Learning Self-Compassion)

This photo shows a sad clown on a psychiatrist couch.

This photo shows a sad clown on a psychiatrist couch.

The American Psychological Association has found that about a third of Americans respond to stress with food.[1] 

This research was done BEFORE COVID-19 threw the world into chaos.

So if you find yourself binging in response to the stress of our global pandemic, know that you are not alone here.

Our coaching clients, and the NF Coaches themselves, have all found themselves turning to food and alcohol for comfort during quarantine. 

Heck, recently I mindlessly devoured an entire tub of Animal Crackers too. It was only when the bag was gone did I understand what just happened.

A gif of "the next day" from the film the Hangover

A gif of "the next day" from the film the Hangover

Many of us, even fitness “experts,” are prone to stress eating.

Now, don’t take this as a free pass to stress eat. 

If the behavior goes against your goals, it’s something we want to work towards improving.

But there’s a reason they call it “comfort food.” Food can often be used to make us happier, pandemic or no pandemic. 

And we’re all emotional bags of meat of this floating hunk of space rock, and we’re doing the best we can. 

So give yourself a bit of a break, my friend.

You’re here, you’re reading, and you’re trying. That’s great!

This will bring me to my last point with our handy guide:

Is It Okay to Stress Eat? (Next Steps)

A LEGO pushing around a hot dog stand (with ice cream)

A LEGO pushing around a hot dog stand (with ice cream)

There are times when food is the perfect response to stress.

It’s something Coach Justin mentions in his video.

“Stress eating” might be appropriate if: 

  • After a long workday, a glass of wine with cheese helps you unwind.
  • To celebrate the coming of the weekend, you have an ice cream party on Friday night.
  • The week already seems long, and it just started, “Taco Tuesday” might help you survive until Friday.

The important thing here? 

“We are making a choice.” 

We are choosing to deal with stress or anxiety with food. By making it an intentional activity, we can remove the guilt around emotional eating.

Food can be fine as a reward, as long as it’s us controlling the behavior, and not the food itself.

In addition, if we can recognize the action (or plan for it), we can then adjust our calories before and after and not go off the rails. 

(You can calculate your recommended total daily calorie intake here, by the way!)

If it seems like you aren’t quite there yet, start with your Emotional Eating Notes and your Stress Response Menu.

Even just the process of taking notes on specific episodes of stress eating may be enough to slow down the behavior.

Remember, no matter what happens:

  • You are not a bad person if you stress eat.
  • You are not a bad person if you forget to take notes.
  • You are not a bad person if you ignore your Stress Response Menu.

You are not a bad person (unless you’re a Death Eater, but come on, you know what side you’re on). 

A gif of Voldermort looking mad and evil like

A gif of Voldermort looking mad and evil like

If you need any help along the way, we are here for you.

We have three specific paths to continue with Nerd Fitness:

#1) Our Online Coaching program: a coaching program for busy people to help them make better food choices, stay accountable, and get healthier, permanently.

As I said before, “stress eating” is the number one issued faced by our coaching clients, so we know exactly how to help recognize and address the habit.

You can schedule a free call with our team so we can get to know you and see if our coaching program is right for you:

#2) Liked the video we showed in today’s guide? Want to watch more like them live and get your questions answered? Join Nerd Fitness Prime!

Nerd Fitness Prime is our premium membership program that contains live-streamed workouts with NF Coaches, a supportive online community (with many like minded people dealing with “emotional eating”), group challenges, and much more! 

A banner advertising Nerd Fitness Prime

Option #3) Join the Rebellion! We need good people like you in our community, the Nerd Fitness Rebellion.

Sign up in the box below to enlist and get our Rebel Starter Kit, which includes all of our “work out at home” guides, the Nerd Fitness Diet Cheat Sheet, and much more!

Alright, I want to hear from you:

Have you been stress eating more with the outbreak of COVID-19?

Do you have any tips or tricks to interrupt the pattern?

What’s your favorite way to de-stress?

Let me know in the comments!

-Steve

P.S. If you’re struggling to keep a normal routine with COVID-19 chaos erupting, check out How to Stay in Shape (Without Leaving the House)

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Photo Source: Plant LEGO, LEGO Pokemon Detective Pikachu, Programmer, On the couch, LEGO hot dog stand

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