It’s understandable that in the current environment, many of us are experiencing heightened feelings of stress, uncertainty, and anxiety. This might be the result of financial pressures, fear for our own health or the health of loved ones, and uncertainties around the future.
Alongside this, we’re also coping with different challenges that come with working from home and reducing our social interaction, such as increased snacking and emotional eating.
Second Nature recently performed a survey, which included over 1800 participants, to gather further insights into how our lifestyle habits have changed since the coronavirus outbreak. Interestingly, the survey found that over 50% of us are eating more snacks than usual. On top of this, almost 50% of us reported eating when bored and 25% felt out of control with our eating habits.
This highlights that we’re not alone when it comes to experiencing changes to our food choices and eating habits over the past few weeks. The good news: there are effective strategies that we can use to help us take back control and prevent overeating.
In this guide, we’ll be sharing our top tips on how to overcome stress eating in the moment and better manage our food cravings. Remember, not one size will fit all. It’s important to find a strategy that works for you.
It’s important to remember that it can take our brain a long time to lay down the habit pathway associated with emotional eating, so understandably it will take us time and practice to undo this.
1) Practise mindful eating
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’ve finished a meal and not remembered actually eating the food? You’re not alone – many of us are focused on something else when we eat, so the act of eating is done on autopilot.
Mindful eating is an important tool to help us become more aware of what we’re eating, how much we’re eating, and why we’re eating it. In the long run, this can help with weight loss by controlling our portion sizes and staying in tune with what our body actually needs.
The goal of mindfulness, in general, is to practice paying attention on purpose and non-judgmentally to one single thing, which is the complete opposite of multitasking. In the case of mindful eating, this means turning your full attention to the process of choosing, preparing, and eating your food, whether that be meals, snacks, or drinks.
The first step to mindful eating is to remove distractions at mealtimes. If we’re preoccupied with our surroundings, such as the TV, our mobile phone, driving, or work, it’s difficult to focus on the process of eating entirely.
This often leads to us eating more than what our body needs, or eating past the point of fullness. Ideally, try to eat at a table away from your workspace and minimise other distractions. Eating in the company of others is a great way to spend mealtimes – you might even consider a video chat with friends or family over mealtimes if you’re living alone.
Engage your senses
Before eating, take a moment to look at and smell your food. Also spend some time reflecting on where your food came from, and how it was grown and prepared. This will help you appreciate what you’re eating and the work that went into getting food on your plate.
As you’re eating the meal, focus on what each element tastes like in your mouth and savour each bite. Are there certain textures or flavours which pair well together? Turn your attention to enjoying the food that you’re eating.
You could also try dimming one of your senses to heighten the others while you eat a certain food. For example, you could blindfold yourself or close your eyes while you enjoy a piece of chocolate or a scoop of ice cream. This activity can make your other senses like taste and smell much more engaged, which means you enjoy the chocolate more and feel more satisfied afterwards.
The next step is to take time to eat your meal. Often we eat food on-the-go or in a hurry while focusing on something else. The ’20, 20, 20′ strategy is a helpful tool to increase mindfulness around food and eating. At each meal:
- Chew your food for 20 seconds
- Put your fork down for 20 seconds between mouthfuls
- Take 20 minutes to eat your meal.
Concentrate entirely on your food, and even if you feel your mind wandering, carry on. You’ll likely find that you need to eat less as you become more in tune with your body’s hunger signals and more aware of what you’re eating.
- In the current environment, many of us are finding ourselves snacking more than usual and feeling like we’ve lost control of our food intake Mindful eating is a useful strategy to help us feel more in control of our food choices
- Eating mindfully involves becoming more aware of what we’re eating, how much we’re eating, and why we’re eating it
- It means paying closer attention to the process of choosing, preparing, and eating our meals
- Removing distractions when eating meals and snacks can help us stay more in tune with our feelings of hunger and fullness
- Engaging with all our senses when eating, including taste, smell, sound, feel, and sight, will help us feel more satisfied after our meal
- Slowing down while we’re eating can also give our body enough time to feel full, so we can learn to respond to our fullness cues earlier.
2) Be prepared
Another effective strategy you can try is ‘if/then‘ scenarios. Take a moment to fast-forward to 6 months in the future, and imagine that you’ve failed with your healthy lifestyle changes.
Now try and tell the story of why this happened. What caused you to go off track? What did you struggle with or find difficult? Why was it hard to restart?
Now that you have this information, you can start to develop a plan to stop these scenarios from happening in the first place. This is where our ‘if/then’ scenarios come in.
For each barrier or challenge you think you might face in the future, think about the action you’ll take in this situation.
- If I’m bored at home and get the urge to visit the pantry, then I’ll listen to a podcast, so my mind has something else to focus on
- If I’m feeling upset after watching the news and I get a craving for ice cream, then I’ll sit down and try a brain training app
- If I had an awful day and feel overwhelmed with a lack of routine, then I’ll call my friend for a chat
Try to write down a full list of all the possible scenarios that you foresee as being a potential challenge. Then when you’re faced with these situations in the future, you’ll feel better prepared with a plan to manage them.
If you find yourself faced with one of your triggers and your current ‘if/then’ scenario doesn’t work – that’s ok! It may take a few attempts before you find an alternative outlet that’s really effective in soothing your emotions.
Research has also shown that the best tasks to do to take your mind off food are cognitively challenging ones. This means going for a walk, meditation, or taking a bath may not be effective ways to distract yourself. However, something that engages your brain can be a better distractor, such as:
- Sudoku puzzles
- Brain training apps
- Chess or scrabble
- Calling a friend
- Learning a new dance routine or taking a dance class
- Learning a musical instrument or language
- Playing a board game
- Listening to a podcast
- You might like to try some of these cognitively challenging tasks in your ‘if/then’ scenarios!
- Being prepared for emotional cravings ahead of time can help you better manage them in the moment
- One strategy to help you prepare is doing ‘if/then’ scenarios, which involves forecasting some behaviours you could do in response to every possible scenario
- Cognitively challenging tasks are also more likely to help you move on from an emotional craving compared to more relaxing activities
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3) Take away the guilt
It’s also important that you try to take away any feelings of guilt that can arise during or after an episode of comfort or emotional eating. One way to do this is to stop labelling foods as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘junk food’, ‘treat’, or ‘syn’. This can foster a negative relationship with food and create an ongoing cycle of comfort eating. Instead, there should be foods we enjoy every day and foods that we enjoy less often.
Try to avoid putting strict rules around food as well, like ‘I can’t eat a bag of chips during the week’ or ‘I’m not allowed to drink fizzy drinks ever again’.
Generally, strict rules tend to have the opposite effect of making us crave these foods even more, then causing feelings of guilt or shame if we break one of these rules.
Try to have a more balanced viewpoint, such as ‘I’ll only have chocolate when I truly feel like it.’ Then allow yourself to enjoy the chocolate when you want it and move on afterwards.
At the end of the day, every one of us will have different triggers for emotional eating. Likewise, we need an individualised approach when it comes to feeling in control of our emotions.
The Second Nature programme teaches you to enjoy food mindfully without counting numbers, calories, or fixating on weight. We believe there’s so much more to health than the food you put in your mouth. That’s why we take a more holistic approach and focus on mindset, stress, sleep, and exercise, as well as nutrition.
Keep in mind that there’s a difference between emotional eating and binge eating disorder (BED), which is a severe mental illness. Overeating every now and again is perfectly normal, however, if you’re experiencing binge-eating episodes at least once a week for three months, it’s important to seek help from a qualified healthcare professional.
- Removing the guilt often associated with emotional eating episodes is important to help you overcome them
- Avoid labelling foods or putting strict rules around certain foods, which can foster a negative relationship with food
- Try to adopt a more balanced and flexible viewpoint towards food and allow yourself to enjoy the foods you love mindfully
Take home message
- Many of us are finding we’re snacking more and feeling less in control of our food choices since social distancing and the coronavirus pandemic
- Mindful eating is an effective strategy to help us be more in control of our food choices
- Being prepared for emotional eating cravings ahead of time can also help us to better manage these in the moment
- It’s also important to remove any guilt associated with emotional eating and try to take a more balanced approach towards occasional foods
- Remember that we all need an individualised approach when learning to better manage emotional eating. It will take time and practice to overcome this and we should approach this process with kindness and acceptance towards ourselves.