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Stop stress eating in its tracks

Last Modified: September 17, 2021

Family Medicine, Nutrition & Recipes

Autumn has arrived and the changing of the seasons is a great time to take a deep breath and take a fresh look at what we’re eating, and evaluate whether we’re nourishing our spirit and body. Julia Walker, RDN, helps us examine our behaviors.

A tale of two tanks

A lot of people eat in response to emotions and use food as a coping mechanism. If you think you might fall into this category, consider this:

We have “two tanks”: 1) A biological hunger tank, designed to clue us in to nourishing the body, and 2) a psychological hunger tank, which is for nourishing the spirit.

Many people try to use food to fill up their psychological tank. It may work temporarily, but in the long run, it does nothing to solve or help our stress. In fact, this approach can often increase our stress resulting in weight gain and negative self-talk. In order to meet your emotional need without food, try to separate the two tanks. 

A hunger test

The following exercise can help you distinguish between true hunger and false hunger.     

Make a list of some of the reasons why you eat. There are a lot of emotional and environmental triggers (stress, boredom, being tired, habit, watching television., driving by a restaurant, tempting TV ads, etc.). On another list, write out what your biological signals are for hunger (stomach growling, empty feeling in your stomach, etc.). This is true hunger.

If you’re not sure if you’re experiencing true or false hunger, take the water challenge. Drink 8 ounces of water and wait 20 minutes. Often, the hunger goes away and, it turns out, you were really just thirsty. If you are still hungry, then eat a nourishing snack.

Healthy comfort

Another question to ask yourself if you’re not hungry is, “What do I need?” You might need a nap, meditation, time to journal, a good talk with a dear friend or a hot bath. Developing a list of things you can do to help provide comfort rather than eating will set you up for relief and/or pleasure without the use of food.

Other strategies to stay in touch with your biological hunger and nourishment is to eat every 3-4 hours throughout the day. Your body should naturally signal a feeling to eat or not to eat. 


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