When life becomes overwhelming, healthy eating habits will often take a hit. Throughout my undergrad, I would experience this at least four times a year: during midterms and finals. The routine would be the same each time; sit down for 12 hours straight and study until my brain is crammed. This would mean getting up from my chair every hour and opening up the fridge, cupboard, and drawer. The snacking was constant and it was a way to distract myself from the actual task at hand.
What is Emotional Eating?
Food can be a source of comfort when experiencing stress or negative emotions. This is called emotional eating. Emotional eating is the act of consuming foods as a coping mechanism rather than because of hunger. A study has shown that emotional eaters consume significantly more food than non-emotional eaters1. When there is high stress in your life, emotional eating can often be an easy way to escape.
So what can we do to curb this?
1. Be reflective
The first step to maintaining healthy eating habits during a stressful time is to think about what has changed in your routine. During school, my schedule was predictable. Like most post-secondary students, the day was about juggling between classes, work, volunteering, and club meetings. Meals would often be wedged somewhere in between, but the timing was always consistent. However, during exam period when classes were over and I took time off work, I fell out of my structured routine. Rather than feeling the usual hunger sensation after class as a cue to have lunch, I now had open ended hours where I would be at my desk all day to study and graze on food. Sometimes, there would be more food scraps on my table than textbooks. I would often feel more sluggish rather than nourished. Try reflecting on your own stressor and how that has affected your healthy eating habits. Ask yourself:
- What part of your routine has changed?
- Am I eating balanced meals?
- Am I eating at regular, set intervals?
- Where can I make improvements?
2: Make plans
Once you have identified how the stressor is affecting your healthy eating patterns, the next step is to make sensible plans to work around them. This is definitely easier said than done, especially when you are trying to deal with the stressor itself. Setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) goals can make the task much more approachable and realistic to achieve. Here’s what I did during exam time:
- Schedule breaks after every hour of study
- Plan time to eat four small meals during the day
- Ensure each meal contained at least 3 food groups
- Stock up on accessible healthy snacks (in case I had a day where I would go back to grazing)
Making plans does not mean you will follow them to the T, but it will give you some structure to fall back on during those stressful days.
3. Give yourself a break
It might seem counterintuitive to take breaks or make time for other activities when you are busy focusing on the stressor. For a while, I felt that this would not be the best use of my time when I should be studying. However, I found that I became more productive after taking breaks because I was able to re-set my mind and be more focused. During these breaks, I occupied myself with small chores such as laundry or grocery shopping for my next meal. By doing something else, I was able to relieve anxiety and did not need to constantly snack all day, which helped to prevent overeating. Taking breaks to destress can also clear your head which can give you the ability to better handle the stress itself. Some suggested activities include:
- Go for a walk or run
- Talk to a friend or family member
- Listen to music
- Small chores such as dishes, laundry, cooking
- Play with your pet
Stressors are inevitable in our lives. Whether it is looking for a job, dealing with a relationship, or studying for exams, stress can easily lead to emotional eating and throw us off our usual healthy eating habits. By following the three steps to be reflective, make plans, and give yourself a break, you will be able to keep on track and maintain healthy eating habits.
Author's Note: Thank you to this year’s Nutrition Month theme of Take the Fight Out of Food for being the inspiration for this article. Dietitians are here for support if you struggle to have a positive relationship with food or if you just want to learn more about food tips and ideas to lead a healthier lifestyle.
Strien T et al. Emotional eating and food intake after sadness and joy. Appetite. 2013;66: 20-25. Accessed 13 March 2017.