Nutritionists from the University of Maryland Medical System regularly contribute a guest post to The Baltimore Sun's health blog Picture of Health (baltimoresun.com/pictureofhealth), which is reprinted here. The latest post is from Debra Schulze.
Are the stressors of life driving you to overeat?
During the holidays, things can get a little stressful, and food is everywhere. Comfort eating can be problematic when it is the primary way you soothe and calm yourself. It can easily sabotage your healthy eating goals and lead to weight gain.
What is emotional and stress eating? In times of stress, anger, sadness, loneliness, fear or depression, you may turn to food for comfort. It is a way to soothe emotions and/or the hassles of daily life. Stress eating is using food to make you feel better rather than satisfying actual hunger.
The strongest cravings can occur when you are at your weakest emotional point. It may feel better at the moment, but after indulging, the problems are still there. Triggers can include relationship or family troubles, unemployment, health problems, workplace stress, lack of sleep and financial difficulty.
The difference between stress hunger and physical hunger: Emotional hunger can come on suddenly; physical hunger generally occurs gradually. Emotional hunger can feel overwhelming; physical hunger generally doesn't feel as urgent.
Emotional hunger does not originate in your stomach. You may feel a craving for a pint of your favorite ice cream or for a particular fatty or salty item. Physical hunger may include symptoms such as your stomach growling, light-headedness and lethargy.
Emotional eating might not cure your emotional hunger. You might continue to eat until you are uncomfortable. Before you realize it, you have consumed a pint of ice cream or a bag of candy without really enjoying it. On the other hand, physical hunger does not need to be overindulged. You feel satisfied when your appetite is sated. You are more aware of what and why you are eating.
Control your triggers: Recognize what triggers your behavior. Try to determine why you are eating.
For example, ask yourself when and what you ate last. It may help you determine whether you are responding to actual hunger or emotional hunger.
Dining with other people is a great way to relieve stress but can also lead to overeating or overdrinking. It is easy to join everyone rather than making your own choices. While there are occasions to celebrate and have fun with friends, remember the difference between physical hunger and feeding an emotion.
Try taking a walk or getting some exercise. Try calling a friend or relative. Sometimes talking about what troubles you helps clear your mind. Start working on a project. Now is a great time to clean closets or overstuffed drawers. You might find a misplaced item that you have been looking for. You may need to rake leaves.
Try taking a nap. This might help relieve sleep deprivation, which could be the source of stress.
Consider trying yoga or Pilates. Or blow the dust off that bike that has been in your garage for decades.
Make healthy choices: Limit serving sizes of snacks. Put the high-calorie snacks out of sight or up on a top shelf where they are not as easy to find. Consider low-fat frozen yogurt occasionally instead of high-fat ice cream. Try colorful vegetables dipped in humus or peanut butter. Crunch on one of the many varieties of apples and pears. You can dip them in low-fat yogurt for a sweet treat.
Lastly, remember that emotional eating is manyl of us do when we are bored or sad. Whatever food choices you make, learn and practice moderation.