4 Simple Shifts to Tame Your Stress-Eating

by Juniper Devecis | Wellness

It is easy to get overwhelmed with stress as a busy entrepreneur. On top of typical family and life obligations, you wear the hats of a marketer, innovator, manager and more. One of the ways I used to cope with stress was by eating. This means I have struggled with my weight my entire life. I tried every diet, I got a graduate degree in nutrition biochemistry, and became a registered dietitian. I got a certificate of training in weight management, and tried all kinds of supplements. With every diet I would lose some weight, and then get depressed and give up. When I was miserable, food seemed like one of my only comforts and too important to give up. One day I saw a picture of myself from a wedding and I knew something had to change. 

I signed up for a hypnosis program that put participants on a low-carb diet and targeted emotional eating. I started to lose weight as I had before. Then, a few months later, my marriage ended. I have never wanted to binge chocolate more than the day my ex came and packed up his things. This time I held firm. Finally, the rock bottom experience of going through divorce and pandemic forced me to dig deep into my maladaptive habits and coping strategies. As those of us who have struggled with food restraint know, losing weight has very little to do with food. Its a battle with your brain. Your brain has been hard-wired to survive, and for most of mankind’s history that meant hoarding calories. Suddenly, in less than a hundred years, the world is a completely different place than it ever has been before. Food is now plentiful, and our brains have not caught up. Here are some shifts to get you back in control:  

Address hunger 

You may be struggling to stay on track because you are hungry. Protein, fat, and fiber-rich vegetables take longer to digest so they keep you feeling full longer. Even flipping the order of how you eat your meal can help. In a study where prediabetic subjects ate protein and vegetables first, followed by bread 10 minutes later, blood glucose was roughly 40% lower than subjects who ate bread first. Insulin was also lower. Higher blood glucose and insulin means more gets stored in your body (think excess weight). Other studies show that a protein first meal order improves hormones associated with satiety, and increases feelings of fullness.

A double whammy of nutrient declines in the food supply, combined with lower calorie needs from our low-activity lifestyles make it particularly challenging to get the nutrients your body needs to function optimally. Food may be plentiful, but it is less nutritious than ever. Multivitamin use has been associated with study subjects more easily able to stick to a weight loss plan, as well as lower hunger, lower body weight and improved mood. While many vitamins and minerals participate in nutrient metabolism, chromium in particular has been shown to help moderate carbohydrate cravings. 

Focus on abundance instead of deprivation

Changing your mindset to focus on what you have instead of what you don’t is a key to being satisfied, in both life and dieting. Research has shown that a regular gratitude practice dramatically boosts mood, even when it is just a couple of times a week.  This practice involves spending a few moments regularly to think of things you are grateful for. You are training your brain to look for positives. On my worst days I can find something to be grateful for, even if it is just my morning coffee or my healthy strong body. In this same way, I look for joy in the abundant array of proteins, healthy fats and vegetables instead of nutrient-poor processed treats. How lucky we are to have such an abundance of healthy foods at our fingertips!

Vegetables are rich in fiber and phytonutrients that are associated with health, as well as adding bright colors, textures and tastes to food. There are over 25,000 different phytonutrient compounds including carotenoids and resveratrol. These compounds are responsible for the different colors and flavors. They are produced by the plants in response to stress in their environment to help their survival.  Similarly, ingesting these compounds supports our own cellular defenses. Eating plants from each color group will provide you with a range of different phytonutrients that keep your cells challenged.

Eating a variety of plants also helps support the diversity of the gut microbiome, helping us weather the assaults of unhealthy food choices, medications, and immune challenges. People who ate 30 different plant types per week had gut microbiomes significantly more diverse than those who ate <10 types. Trying to eat 30 different plant types is harder than you think, but can became a fun game. You may think its impossible until I tell you that spices count. So get crazy with different types of squashes, mushrooms, lettuces, greens, fresh herbs. You can roast a pan of root vegetables, make vegetable soup (feel free to freeze in small portions), try new salad combinations, and start adding more spices to your meals. 

Establish a good system of support

Having a strong support system helps you weather the stressors of life. Stress increases cortisol, making us crave sugar or starchy carbohydrates. The problem is that we can’t get satisfied no matter how much we eat, because its not about the food. When you focus on getting adequate sleep, movement, building community and nurturing activities, the small day-to-day stresses will roll off of you so you can save your panic for the big stuff. 

Adequate sleep is associated with lower cortisol, positive mood, better focus and decision-making, and increased ability to adhere to healthy eating choices. It can be hard to unwind at the end of the day, so shut off the screens 30 minutes before bed. Blue light (found in both sunlight and digital screens) has been associated with alertness and cognitive performance during the day, but exposure in the evening lowers sleep quality. You could also do some gentle stretching or evening self-reflection to encourage restful sleep. Melatonin or magnesium may also be helpful. A meta-analysis found that supplemental magnesium decreased the time it took to fall asleep by 17 minutes. 

Exercise decreases inflammation and reduces the stress hormones associated with appetite. It also boosts serotonin and mood, important for emotional eaters. I don’t mean you have to start training for a marathon, but try to get some movement most days. For me, I have come to love getting away from my desk for a mid-day jog in the sun. I find my mood is higher and my appetite lower on the days that I exercise. I may not love it always, but I do love the endorphin rush I feel at the end knowing I am getting stronger, and it’s over until tomorrow. I encourage you to think outside the box and find something you enjoy whether it is hiking, biking, yoga, swimming, dancing, or even jumping jacks. 

External support is support from people in your lives, including friends, family, therapy, and social groups. Making sure you have a strong system of external support will help you cope when life gets hard. This could even include community like religious organizations and gyms. If you find yourself with a smaller circle, what could you do to grow it? Can you reach out to an acquaintance about getting together for a walk? Call a relative and invite them over for dinner? Take a class? Find a therapist? Connect with other entrepreneurs!

Internal support is the activities and habits that allow you to nurture and replenish yourself. If you are like me, internal support may be the hardest to put into place. After spending most of my life taking care of other people, I didn’t even remember what I liked to do! Think carefully about what lights you up, and then make time to do more of that. If you make self-care a priority, it will grow and eventually you will find more and more of these types of activities. What type of exercise do you like? Nature? Art? Creative outlets, like dancing, drawing, writing, photography, or music? What did you like to do in your childhood? 

Be appreciative and mindful

People often talk about how much they enjoy food when talking about why they don’t want to make changes. Personally, I was not appreciating food when I was heavy. I would eat quickly and furtively, often in an attempt to fill up emptiness inside of me instead of hunger.  Taking time to be mindful allows you to really savor and enjoy your food. 

When you are preparing food, take time to make it with care. Add color and texture with vegetables, and use spices and seasonings for extra flavor. As you prepare your plate, make it a feast for the eyes. Use elegant tableware and garnish your dishes with herbs, spices or flowers. You deserve this special care, and your food does too. Instead of eating while you surf your phone, eat at the table without distractions so you can focus on enjoying your food. When you sit down to eat spend a few moments to appreciate this Sacred gift from nature before eating. Food is a gift from the Earth. Pause and remember the soil, the sun, the farmer, and the chef that labored for your meal. Then when you are eating, chew slowly and savor your food. Pause briefly between bites to explore how the food tastes and smells. How does it feel in your mouth? How does it feel in your body? How does it make you feel emotionally (comforting, nourishing, guilty, happy, etc)? If you love food, then allow yourself this time to truly appreciate it. Food is so much more satisfying with mindfulness.


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Juniper Devecis
Juniper Devecis MS, RD, CCN at Juicy Juniper LLC

Juniper Devecis MS, RD, CCN has been a passionate outside-the-box nutritionist for decades specializing in dietary supplements and lifestyle change. Unlike nutritionists that focus on food or therapy that addresses feelings, Juniper combines expertise in biochemistry, psychology, and her own personal experience of self-transformation to provide action-based tools to help people transform their lives from “surviving” to thriving. Her unique approach focuses on joy and self-love, cutting-edge nutrition, mindset, and more.

1 Comment

  1. Debra

    Well written and researched article with practical tips


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