To put it mildly, we’re living in a time that’s hard to navigate. This kind of stress combined with isolation is hard for everyone to manage, and there’s no perfect way to do it.
When you combine the stress of the news and the boredom of being on lockdown every day, a lot of stress eating (and boredom eating) can come out of it. Let us be clear: now is not the time to beat yourself up or be extra hard on yourself about what your day-to-day life is consisting of. If you’re using this time to try to do more fitness videos and get in the best shape of your life to distract your mind from reality, more power to you. If you’re using it to give yourself time off and a much-needed break, that’s great too.
If you’ve found yourself stress eating and are looking to stop it, we’ve turned to Health and Weightloss Coach Ellie Rome for her best advice. She dives into why stress eating is so common, how to curb it, and how to give your body the nutrients it’s craving in return. Rule number one? Stop beating yourself up.
Why am I eating so much?
Right now, our outlets for stress and ways to be stimulated have dramatically decreased— no group sports, shows, movies, friends, etc.—so food can easily become our source of joy, comfort, sense of calm, and a temporary distraction from the stressors of our world. Eating feels good. When we eat or even just think about food, our brain releases eating releases dopamine, our desire chemical, and endorphins, feel-good chemicals.
Processed junk food high in refined sugar, refined flour, high fatty processed oils, and salt can cause a huge spike in dopamine and when the bite is over—we want more. Hence why we open a bag of chips to just have a couple, and five minutes later we’re scraping the bottom of the bag for crumbs.
When we’re bored, we want stimulation. Dopamine is that stimulation. We get a lot of those dopamine hits from Instagram, social media, online shopping, and of course, eating. On top of that, when we’re stressed or anxious, certain foods serve as comfort, releasing those feel-good chemicals. If you’ve gone through most of your life using food for comfort or as a mechanism to numb out from stress, your brain may be conditioned to reach for food when hit with a stressor or anxious feeling.
The more often you use food each time you’re stressed, the stronger that neural pathway becomes, and then we start doing it automatically. A stress trigger hits and boom, you’re halfway through a gallon of ice cream and you don’t even realize. Being out of routine may have you feeling scattered and ungrounded. Food can serve as a temporary feeling of safety and calm during these times of uncertainty.
Right now, we’ve got this perfect storm of increased stress + boredom + uncertainty.
Find compassion for yourself if you’ve been bingeing or boredom eating. You are not alone, but this is an opportunity to empower yourself to take charge of your habits and tendencies versus letting yourself be a victim to circumstance. Release perfectionism and start tuning in.
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How to Break Out of Boredom Eating and Binge Eating
1. Tune into your triggers
Awareness is key. Get off autopilot and start paying attention to the moments you reach for food. Get curious every time you notice an impulse to go to the fridge, and pause and ask yourself: Am I hungry? What just happened that has me reaching for food? What am I feeling?
Did an episode of Netflix just end and now looking for stimulation? Did you just finish writing an email and now want a break? Did you just finish an Instagram scrolling binge and now need another hit of something? Are you anxious about something you just saw on the news?
This isn’t about shaming yourself or telling yourself “I can’t have this or I shouldn’t eat that.” Release judgment—just get really curious about what is actually going on for you.
2. Choose non-edible forms of nourishment instead
Find something else pleasurable for your brain to go to in these moments that isn’t food. Drink sparkling water or tea. Go for a walk. Dance to some music. Call a friend. Read. Work on a fun side-project for 10 minutes.
3. Create if/then plans
Once you can identify your common triggers, you can proactively plan for them and choose a preferred non-edible nourishment behavior instead. Get specific on what you will choose with that specific trigger.
The behavior to change:
I eat bags of chips when I get stressed from the news.
If I get stressed out from the news, then I will do a two-minute meditation that I already downloaded. (Don’t leave this to be figured out, have the exact meditation you will do planned out. Take as much decision making and prep work out of it as possible.)
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4. Envision two pathways when changing your behavior
Mentally rehearse your if/then plans to make it easier to follow through with the new behavior. I always tell my clients to imagine two paths in a forest:
Path #1 is the old pattern:
I sit down on the couch for a show and eat something sweet.
You’ve taken this path hundreds of times, so it is super well defined. This path is clear and easy, you don’t have to think about it.
Path #2 is the new path; the new behavior that you’d like to adopt.
I sit down for a show and sip on herbal tea.
This path has rarely, if ever, been taken, so it’s like walking through a forest with no defined trail. You don’t quite know where you’re going. This new path is uncomfortable, so you’ve got to be ready to be met with resistance. You will initially want what you know, not something different. However, each time you take this path, the more defined it gets, and the less resistance you will have to it.
5. Make it difficult to snack and get rid of foods with no breaks
Get real with yourself: What are you reaching for when you boredom eat or stress eat?
What are your foods with no breaks? The foods you start eating and quite literally can’t stop. Think cookies, chips, ice cream, etc. Get them out of the house or our of reach. In the impulsive moments when we reach for food, creating barriers will give you more time to think “not worth it.” It’s easier to resist a craving or choose one of the non-edible forms of nourishment when the choice isn’t so instant.
6. Make it so insanely easy to choose healthy behaviors
If you’re wanting to do yoga instead of eating cookies, but when the craving hits, your yoga mat is upstairs in the back of your closet, and your yoga pants are in the wash, those cookies are going to be gone in a matter of seconds—it won’t work. We’ve got to make the new behavior so easily accessible that you don’t have time to create excuses.
- Set your yoga mat out with your weights ready to go
- Put your workout clothes on first thing in the morning
- Schedule and pre-pay for a live workout class so it’s on the calendar
- If you’re wanting to drink tea instead of eating a brownie, have your favorite herbal tea on the counter ready to go. Consider getting an electric water kettle you can just flick it on when you’re ready
Bonus: Don’t work from the kitchen! If you’re working from home right now, find someplace else in your home to work from so not constantly looking at the fridge throughout the day.
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7. Hungry all the time? Make sure you are getting enough protein and healthy fat
If you are feeling hungry all of the time, focus on getting in good protein and healthy fats, and be mindful of the amount of carbs and sugar you are eating. Build your plate with clean protein, healthy fats, and fiber from non-starchy veggies. Let that be your bare-minimum checklist as you build your plate.
If you’re reaching for a snack, choose high-energy, minimally-processed, low-carb options that will satiate you, like nuts, raw veggies and guacamole, a hard-boiled egg, dark chocolate with more than 70 percent cacao, or grass-fed beef jerky.
We often confuse thirst for hunger. Start measuring how much water you’re drinking. If you’re having trouble remembering to drink water, pair it with things you already do like before your morning coffee, before you brush your teeth, or every time you finish a Netflix episode.
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9. Acknowledge your anxiety
When we’re in a stressed-out state, we enter survival mode. From this place, it’s hard not to impulsively react to triggers. Luckily, we can use simple techniques like breathwork, mindfulness, and meditation to get out of a stress state or end a negative thought spiral. Two of my favorite tools are The 5-5-7 Breath and The Body Scan.
When hit with a stress trigger or impulse to eat, connect to your breath. Inhale for five, hold for five, exhale for seven. Repeat 10 times (or even just two times to start) Practice this throughout your day when you are hit with one of your triggers or waiting in line to get into the grocery store.
Simple Body Scan
The moment you notice yourself stressed out or hit hard with a craving, connect to your body. Bring awareness to different parts of the body and just notice them. You don’t have to force anything—just feel them in this moment.
Starting at the crown of your head, scan down. In your mind, feel your forehead, your eyelids, your cheeks, your jaw, scan down your neck, feel your left shoulder, your left bicep, etc. Scan all the way down to your toes. If your mind wanders, that’s OK, just return to where you left off and continue.
10. Plan your meals and create a routine
Write out what your meal plan the following day or week. Get really specific based on your schedule and what’s available to eat. Take the decision making out of it so you’re not mindlessly standing in front of the fridge just eating random things all day.
Next, figure out approximately what time you eat. Create a routine so that you know when it is NOT time to eat. Your ideal meal timing depends on you, but generally speaking, if three meals a day works for you with one snack in the afternoon, get clear on exactly what you’re planning to eat for each of those instances.
If you are going to want a snack at some point, pre-portion it out. Eat them on a plate or bowl, not out the container they came in. Slow down, minimize multi-tasking while eating, and enjoy every bite.
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11. Move Your Body
Right now during this isolation, movement is more important than ever. If you can do it outside in the sun, that’s even better! It doesn’t have to necessarily be a formal, strenuous workout. Focus more on movement and what you enjoy doing.
- Schedule in activities to help you move more intentionally throughout your day
- Dance breaks—put on a song you love and just get the body moving.
- Vacuum the house
- Do some cartwheels
- Live Virtual Classes
- Walk up and down the street between Netflix episodes
- Walk while you’re in meetings or calls
It can be really easy to veg out right now and sit around all day, especially if the weather is bad, so schedule things in at specific times and make them happen.
It is so insanely easy right now to use this insane time as a reason to not show up for ourselves. It is a very valid excuse for staying in your pajamas and eating leftover pizza while you work from under the covers.
“I don’t have a gym. I can’t go anywhere.”
“I don’t want to go to the grocery store so I’ll just pick up fried chicken.”
Having external accountability can make all of the difference in the world in you showing up for yourself. Get a friend to virtually meal prep together, sign up for classes, or hire a coach and use this extra time to create the life and health you deserve while you’ve got the chance.
Above all else, love yourself. Each moment is a new moment to choose for your higher self. Release perfection. Remember: one percent improvement each day leads to massive transformation.
This article originally published March 31, 2020.