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5 Steps You Need to Try to Tackle Your Stress Eating Habit

By: Dr. Lindsey Paczkowski, PT, DPT, Pn1

Are stress and overwhelm creeping in on your health and fitness goals? Ever feel like you’re in a cycle of self-sabotage eating sweets or stress eating whenever work deadlines approach, not to mention the never ending coordination of child school pick up, soccer practice and taming the scattered items on your mental grocery list that zoom around in your head?

As a nutrition coach I have found the importance of WHAT you eat is relevant and definitely plays a role in achieving nutrition, fitness and physique goals but I want you to think about HOW you eat. Take a moment and press the rewind button in your head and recall seeing yourself eating your most recent meal.

Were you sitting at a table or standing at the counter or driving in a car? Finding yourself inhaling your food as if it was about to disappear if you waited two seconds longer? Having a conversation with someone around you or scrolling on your phone or watching the television?

How were you feeling? Hungry? Calm? Stressed? Upset? Rushed?

Today’s blog is about our eating behaviors and how they shape our habits and lifestyle.

Food, feelings, habits, stress…there’s a lot going on in our lives and things can get messy. Our habits, behaviors, thoughts, beliefs are so intertwined, even if we don’t want to believe it they affect our decisions with how and what we eat throughout our day in some regard. From my own personal experience and journey with disordered eating, the disordered eating isn’t the problem, it’s the warning signal.

So, what’s disordered eating, it’s a range of abnormal eating behaviors some examples include:
-Any type of eating that regularly doesn’t match physiological needs, whether eating too much or too little.
-Eating behaviors that interfere with and harm proper physical, psychological, and interpersonal functioning.
-A systematic and longstangint preoccupation with food/eating/not eating.
-Eating behaviors that both cause distress and try to relieve distress.

For me, the problem I was trying to solve was “control”. Dave and I moved to San Diego 3.5 years ago starting our new life in North County San Diego. I was seeking to level up my active and health focused lifestyle in our new location. In the past 6 months leading up to our move my life was all sorts of change. I had recently graduated from Physical Therapy School, taken and passed boards, Dave and I got married, moved from the Midwest to Southern California,and was about to start my professional career as a licensed physical therapist. All exciting memories, opportunities and events but also a lot of change. I found myself struggling with “I shouldn’t eat that” and choosing to eat unhealthy foods especially at my workplace and poorly managing stress myself sneaking and binging sweets and foods I didn’t even like or feel good when eaten. I was feeling frustrated with myself, setback, numb and overwhelmed with how my actions were impacting the person I was aspiring to be.

It took me a while to acknowledge the way I had been behaving and eating was a problem and honestly look at how it was more than a “splurge” or “occasional treat”. I thought I was trying to do the “right thing” by limiting certain foods, but would find myself obsessing over food and stressing about upcoming meals and seeking food left in the work break room…and still finding my poor eating habits we’re increasing and my goals were slipping away and the most annoying part about it was I knew I was going about it all wrong and yet continued down that path of binging food in secret.

Once I acknowledged my actions and the cycle of my perceived control I was able to work on my eating behaviors and habits. A huge component for me was getting my undesirable eating behaviors out of the darkness and not keeping it a secret. I shared with my husband, and close friends around me it helped take the power out of my secret food consuming that was stopping me from enjoying activities like social gatherings, eating out, and day to day activities – I have moved on to getting back to a consistent eating routine rebuilding healthier habits and relationships with food as well as addressing the stressors I had without food as the comfort or reward.

According to resources provided by Precision Nutrition,“Research shows that while our behaviors may seem “spur-of-the-moment”, when it comes to over-eating the groundwork is laid several hours in advance by our daily rituals, habits, mindset, and automatic thinking. Over-eating is simply the last link in a long chain. If you can break the first link, you have a much better chance of never getting to the last link.”

If my story or some of the scenarios mentioned above sound familiar to you I encourage you to try one of these strategies to bring more awareness to your eating behaviors.

1. Build Awareness Log

Create a log that you can journal and describe your actions, thoughts, beliefs, feelings, timing, surroundings 1-2 hours before, immediately before, in the middle and afterwards for a behavior, such as stress eating.

2. Eating Habits Log

Take a few minutes to think about your personal eating habits. Some things to consider:
-General eating habits (time of day, what you eat)
-Do you feel like you have trouble controlling your appetite/hunger?
-Identify if/when you experience physical hunger and fullness cues                                                                                                       -Do you normally struggle with food cravings? What do you normally crave? What do you normally do when you have cravings?
-Have you noticed any connection between your emotions or stress level and your eating habits?

3. Eat slowly and mindfully rather than hurried and distracted:

Meal Duration Journal: Track the time you started and stopped eating to monitor if you’re rushing meal time or eating at a healthy mindful pace

-Eating Slow Journal: Easy way to keep track of consistency over time, did I eat my meal slowly Yes or No

80% Full Meal Log: Track and aim to eat until you feel satisfied rather than feeling 100% full which can lead to overeating and “stuffed” and uncomfortable sensation.

4. Clearly identify physical hunger and fullness cues (rather than urges to eat, or habitual eating a set time

5. Choose less processed, more whole foods to nourish your body and consume quality calories vs “empty calories”

I can honestly say I am still in process and through the strategies implemented in our program I have been able have peace around my food choices, relationship with food, and building new healthier habits with food to allow me to feel and look my best. I no longer have to avoid being in the break room or at social gatherings and potlucks. I’m mentally and physically stronger and in as good of shape now as I was when I was a competitive softball player. Not only that, I understand how to take care of my own body from the Inside Out.

The more we choose to live in the fast pace of society the more we can find ourselves using other things to console or comfort and fill emptiness. Take meaningful action steps toward the goals you have for your life and changing the habits and behaviors that have been limiting your potential. Interested in personalized nutrition coaching to work on creating lasting habits, behaviors, positive mindset to consistently live out life you desire AND have encouragement and accountability along the way? Please reach out to the Inside Out Strength and Performance team, we would love to chat more about your goals and how we can help you achieve them!

Disclaimer: I believe there is a time and place for help from health care professionals such as psychologists for treatment with disordered eating. I also ensure that the coaching we are doing is not “treatment” or “curing” any disordered eating, but rather coaching for behavior and habit change.

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