For a lot of people right now, stress levels are high. When we are stressed we often look for ways to feel better and “numb” the uncomfortable feelings.
Food can provide a lot of enjoyment to many people, particularly the high calorie, low nutrition types of food. These foods give us that immediate hit of pleasure but they are also very addictive. This can be a BIG problem for a lot of us. It might feel good in the moment but it is not actually helping our health (or waistlines) in the long run.
Making changes to how we eat can be difficult at the best of times, but it is even harder when life gets stressful. Many people attempt to lose weight every year and for 9 out of 10 of my clients, this is the number 1 reason they come to see me. Many of them have tried lots of different diets before and while some of them had success, at some point it all came undone (usually during the time that their stress levels are at the highest).
It is not you failing a diet but instead the diet fails you. The focus is in the wrong place. What we need is a strategy that allows us to follow a “lifestyle” plan consistently, especially in times of inevitable stress. It is easy to follow things when life is going well, it is a whole lot harder when we have other challenges going on.
Here are 5 ideas that will help reshape the way stress and food are linked in your life. Reading these skills won’t change things overnight but practicing the skills each day certainly will. These ideas will allow you to be in control, particularly when other things are moving outside of your control sphere.
- Appetite awareness
- Normalising feelings
- Balanced eating
- Progress not perfection
- Food preparation and planning
1. Appetite Awareness
Is it physical hunger or emotional craving?
Most adults have no idea what physical hunger and /or fullness actually feel like. There is no awareness of appetite. I find some clients might be able to identify extreme variations, eg. “I’ve been on a diet for a week and I’m ready to binge” to “I ate so much I’m uncomfortable” but not so much understanding the healthy normal ranges. Is it hunger? Is it thirst? Is it another emotion?
Differentiating hunger cravings from stress cravings is very important. To do this you need to be able to work out when you are physically hungry compared to when you are feeling stressed out.
Appetite awareness is one of the most useful and accurate ways someone can recognise how much food their body needs. If people eat when they are not hungry (or don’t stop when they are satisfied) they are more likely to end up with a body composition and overall health that is less than ideal. On the flip side, if people don’t eat when they are physically hungry, they will often end up with nutrient deficiencies and the consequences of ongoing energy deprivation.
Paying attention to physiological hunger and fullness cues helps us to properly regulate our intake in energy balance. When we learn how to recognise these, eating becomes much simpler and more intuitive. You don’t need food “rules”, cognitive control or tight restrictions, you have your own body to tell you when to start and stop eating.
So……How Do You Know The Difference?
To recognise physiological hunger, ask yourself:
- What physical sensations do I feel? (growling stomach, light headedness, a sense of abdominal emptiness or heaviness)
- Do I feel like a balanced meal? (a plate of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats)
- When was the last time I ate something? (was it a short while ago or many hours, chances are you are more likely to be feeling physically hungry if you ate 3 or 4 hours ago)
- What was the last thing I ate? (a balanced colourful healthy meal is more likely to keep you feeling satisfied for longer than a processed sugary snack)
- If I wait for 15-20 minutes will I still feel hungry?
The answers to these questions will help you to decide whether it is physiological hunger and if so, eat something (preferably healthy). If it is not physical hunger that is creating the cravings, it is probably emotional “hunger”.
2. Normalising Feelings
Food has a great way of soothing and comforting us as it stimulates pleasure pathways in the brain. Food has emotional associations. It has meaning and memory, reminding us of home, childhood, or that time we went on a holiday, to our grandparents or our favourite movie.
Food connects us to others, to our family, heritage and culture. It is often a way we express love, care, concern and /or celebrate with others, preserve our history and who we are.
But this is a problem because it is easy to do to excess, we can feel compelled to do it, we find it difficult to stop and we don’t have any other way of creating connection or comfort to manage our feelings. It is okay to feel uncomfortable. We often treat discomfort like it is something that needs to be fixed, like it is something that we shouldn’t feel. But it is completely normal and human to feel uncomfortable at times. Accept that this is normal. If hunger is not the problem, food is not the answer.
Recognising times of emotional craving frees you up from resorting to food as the solution. When you notice an urge to eat emotionally, pause for a minute and ask yourself, “What is the emotion I am feeling?”. Anxiety, tiredness, loneliness, anger, frustration, boredom? Sit with feeling and notice whatever comes up. Notice that you feel uncomfortable, and that it is okay.
Over time this will help you tolerate the discomfort and not use food as a soothing strategy. You may come up with a list of alternatives such as:
- Basic relaxation techniques
- Deep breathing exercises
- Have a bath
- Get a massage
- Call a friend
The process of learning these skills is all part of the FeelGood Challenge. If you are unsure how to do it right now, that is okay, help is out there for you is you need it.
For now, practice noticing if it is physical or emotional hunger and it will begin to put the power back in your hands.
3. Balanced Eating
Having balanced meals (and snacks) is one of the most effective ways to manage hunger (and your weight) as well as your stress levels. Not only will this provide the adequate quantity and quality of nutrients needed for healthy metabolism and how you feel, but it will also help you establish eating times that you can use to work into your lifestyle.
Including complex carbohydrates like vegetables, proteins like organic lean chicken or legumes, and healthy fats like avocados, at every eating opportunity will keep you from feeling hungry. For most people, eating balanced meals will allow approximately 3-4 hours between meals. Spacing meal times out like this will also help you practice the skills of recognising physiological hunger from emotional hunger. For example, if you had a balanced healthy lunch but one hour later you are craving a sweet muffin, it is likely that you are experiencing an emotional craving.
A useful guide for a balanced meal is the hand portion guide. It is simple and always “on hand” too! Use your palm size to guide your protein serve per meal, your fist as your veggie serve, a cupped hand for your complex carbohydrates and your thumb for healthy fats. Number of servings will depend on your health and fitness goals. As an approximate guide, women use one hand for each serve (3-5 serves/day) and men use two hands for each serve (3-5 serves per day). It is important to note here that men generally don’t need twice as much food as women. These numbers simply make it very easy to appropriately portion out a meal.
If you need more assistance working out the right food portions and number of servings for your goals, I am happy to help. This is also something we cover in my Feelgood Program.
4. Progress Over Perfection
Life is full of ups and downs. Expect that you are going to have obstacles and unexpected detours along the way. There are going to be times that feel stressful and that is when it is important to be kind and gentle to yourself.
Look ahead in your week and anticipate where obstacles may present. Treat these potential setbacks as part of the natural process of change and use them as a “set up” for something else. Have a backup plan in place and ready to pull out when you need to.
As long as you can continue to make some progress, you will be moving in the right direction. There are rarely ever any days of perfection, some days you may get close, but don’t expect it. As humans we are already born with imperfections, and that is just perfect!
You are learning and growing. Sometimes it is just a matter of taking things in a new direction. Consider the following:
- Look at what is already working
- What are you doing confidently well?
- What things interest, excite and engage you?
- How can you do more of what is working and what you are doing well?
Behaviours associated with positive emotions will likely be the ones you repeat more often so get creative with healthy behaviours that feel good. You may even like to journal your feelings and associated behaviours to use as a reference at other times when you may be looking for inspiration.
5. Food Preparation and Planning
Having healthy meals and snacks ready will help you avoid going for the “take away” foods that are readily available and often highly processed foods, long life foods that may be stored in your pantry.,. Whatever food is in your house will be either eaten by you or someone else who lives there so it is best to avoid the “junk” food altogether by not having it within your reach.
Allocating some time during the week to healthy food preparation is a great strategy for having healthy foods available when you feel the urge to eat something.
Just keep practicing. Just like practicing movement skills, which help you to get stronger, develop more motor control and/or mobility, when you practice eating skills, you will develop the ability to distinguish between stress eating and not have it drive your eating habits.
It takes time, but it is worth it.