Photo credit: Wavelength

For many of us, 2020 was the year we reckoned with our coping mechanisms, that included an increase in stress eating. A recent global study confirms that the pandemic led to higher anxiety, fewer healthy behaviors, and many of those surveyed reported that they gave in to their food cravings. 

This comes as no surprise — research shows that when we’re stressed, we crave pleasure, and that makes hyper-palatable foods more appealing. Eating releases dopamine, boosting our mood and reinforcing the cycle of eating as an effective stress-reliever. 

Contrary to the diet and weight loss messages that pervade popular culture, there’s nothing wrong with eating to feel better. Taking pleasure in food is one of life’s joys! Stress eating is one of many coping mechanisms we have available to us, and it’s effective — that’s why we do it. 

But if eating to relieve stress isn’t helping you feel better long-term, or meet your health goals, here are some strategies to break the pattern. Rather than white-knuckling cravings, these tips are about managing the stress eating cycle to reduce cravings before they begin. 

Take stock of what causes stress eating for you. 

Hunger is a signal from our bodies that we need something; either our bodies need food for energy, or our brains are looking for that mood-boosting dopamine we get from eating our favorite foods. Start paying attention to your cravings, especially when they feel stress-related. What happened right before the craving began? Though it sounds small, simply noticing the patterns between stress and eating can help you make effective shifts to reduce stress. 

Take time to calm your nervous system daily.

At its core, reducing stress eating is about reducing stress. That can seem overwhelming in itself, especially if you have a stressful job, are a new parent, or are dealing with a difficult situation that is beyond your control. Finding enjoyable ways to calm your nervous system is an easier place to start — spend time with a friend, take a walk outside, listen to relaxing music, take a few deep breaths. Any small kindness we can give ourselves throughout the day calms our nervous system, and in turn, can reduce stress-related eating. 

Release the pressure to eat “perfectly.” 

Our culture makes a big deal about eating the right foods in the right amounts at the right time, and that’s a lot of pressure. The last thing we need when we’re experiencing stress is to pile on more worry about our eating choices. Try approaching eating with a “progress not perfection” mindset. You’re human, and it’s OK to eat foods that comfort you! Once you let go of the pressure to eat perfectly, you’ll notice you enjoy food more, and feel better about your food choices. 

And when you find yourself stressed and wanting to eat, go easy on yourself. Eating is a perfectly normal coping mechanism, and the more you can stay curious about your food choices instead of judgemental, the faster you’ll be able to understand your eating patterns and make changes that last.