Conquering Stress Eating

Posted: Jun 04 in Weight loss, Weight Management Strategies by
stressed couple sitting on bench

Many people trying to lose weight believe that obesity is caused by eating too much and exercising too little. We think that if we could just eat less and move more, we’d lose the extra pounds. Why is it then that all to often, we lose the weight, but find that it creeps back on and before we know it, we are back where we started?

As it turns out, it is more important to understand why we eat what we eat instead of focusing so hard on only what we eat.

One of the major drivers of weight gain (before, during, and after a weight loss program) is chronic stress. Working long hours. Lack of sleep. Business travel. Continuous zoom calls, sometimes at odd hours in other countries. Challenging interpersonal relationships. Chronic pain. Too much time caring for the kids with no time left for oneself. Dealing with illness of a loved one, like a cancer diagnosis or heart disease. Chronic stress is what caused the weight gain in the first place. Not dealing with it will not only make weight loss difficult, but will also make maintaining the weight loss more challenging because we are not addressing the root cause of the weight gain.

For many people, it is these stressors that are contributing to the unhealthy weight. They drive us to eat “comfort food,” which unfortunately isn’t lean chicken breast and non-starchy vegetables. It is foods that help our brain feel better – carbs, fats, sweets, chips, desserts, etc.

Instead of working so hard on trying to just eat a certain way, why not look inside at the things in your life that trigger comfort food eating. Let’s think about some strategies to address some of the above example challenges:

  • Working long hours: is this absolutely necessary? Can you discuss with your employer decreasing the hours to a more reasonable amount? Can you hire an assistant? Are you able to set an enforceable limit – stop work at 4:00 on Fridays, or schedule an appointment with yourself on Wednesdays from 12:00 PM – 2:00 PM?
  • Lack of sleep: I’m sure you’ve heard the expression that fatigue is every dieter’s worst enemy. When we are tired, everything sounds good! Focus on getting good quantity and quality of sleep! Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day to help your body’s circadian clock know when bed time and wakeup time are. Don’t use screens for 30 minutes before bed. Keep the room a bit cooler (especially in the summer).
  • Business travel / zoom calls at odd hours: Re-asses necessary vs. optional travel. Do you really have to go? Is there a way to string trips together? Can the meeting be done virtually? And if it is virtual, does it have to be at 3:00 in the morning, or is there an amicable time even if people are in a different country? If traveling, develop routines. Arrive at the airport early so you are not in a huge rush. DIA has lots of very good restaurants with healthy options – choose one of those, order a healthy option, and if you are allowed to, expense it! This will help you relax before your flight, not be in a huge rush to get through security, and be stuck on the airplane stressed and hungry. Also, travel with some fixed calorie meal replacements – like CNC’s drinks and bars. Instead of a 1,000 calorie rushed restaurant breakfast, enjoy the hotel gym and a delicious 160 calorie meal!
  • Interpersonal relationships: This is probably the hardest one to address in such a short article, and is deserving of a book unto itself! If a relationship is causing you a lot of stress, consider engaging with a counselor, psychologist, or psychotherapist in counseling. See if things can be improved. Sometimes these relationships are with a child, parent or friend. If it is a relationship with somebody not living in your house, decide how much time you are willing to devote to this relationship. Set enforceable limits – for example – “I will only help you run your errands 1/2 day per week – not 3 days per week.” Or, “I didn’t plan lunch with you to be berated. I’m going to go now, and let me know when you are ready to treat me respectfully.”

Perhaps if you can get to the root of your biggest stressors and start working through those, food will lose its grip on you. You’ll be able to stick with your healthy eating plan because you won’t be depending on foods for comfort. You’ll be addressing one of the root causes that resulted in the weight gain to begin with.

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