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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Physician Anita Pee and Dr Eki Wari on August 30, 2022

Best Tips To Help You Eat Healthy When You’re Stressed

When you're stressed, your body naturally craves comfort foods due to elevated cortisol levels. These tips can help you eat healthy and break the stress cycle to gain control over your weight.

Stress munching min scaled

If you find it hard to eat healthy when you’re stressed, you’re not alone. Most people reach for something comforting when everything else in their life feels out of control.

Additionally, many of us stress eat when we’re preoccupied. For example, do you catch yourself snacking while you’re working or studying?

In most cases, the foods that we reach for when mindlessly eating or stressed are not healthy. This can lead to unwanted weight gain.

The tips in this guide can help you recognize and correct bad eating habits so you can stop stress eating and gain control over your weight.

Why Can’t I Eat Healthy When I’m Stressed?

A sad and depressed woman eating chocolate cake
When we are stressed, sad, or overwhelmed, we often reach for comfort foods to temporarily make us feel good. However, this can worsen stress levels and lead to weight gain.

Uncontrollable stress can alter eating patterns and increase your desire for hyper-palatable foods. Over time, certain emotions and specific life events may overwhelm you psychologically and provoke compulsive behaviors.

The control mechanisms that regulate brain activity may also be affected. Together, these can heighten your cravings for overly-rich foods and induce metabolic changes that promote weight gain. 

Separately, sleep deprivation can bring about stress and put you at risk of obesity and metabolic diseases. It can also make you predisposed to cardiovascular conditions or type 2 diabetes.

Two meta-analyses have found that short sleep durations – less than five hours for adults and ten hours for children – are a common predictor of onset obesity.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), stress gives rise to Liver-Qi (vital life force) Stagnation, obstructing Blood and Qi circulation in the Spleen and stomach. Hence, it weakens the digestive system and makes you prone to stress eating. 

How To Eat Healthy When You’re Stressed

To tackle stress eating and its consequences, it’s advised that you focus on managing stress and reconsidering what you eat.

Reduce stress through exercise and meditation 

A young woman meditating in front of her computer screens as she is working during the day
Meditation is an easy step on how to relieve stress, even while you’re working.

The intensity and duration of different workouts may change cortisol levels in your body. For the most part, physical activity may ease some of stress’s negative implications.

Studies show that meditation helps alleviate stress, especially among people vulnerable to developing hypertension or heart disease. It may also help you become more mindful of your dietary choices.

Gradually, you’ll become more aware of your impulse to put away high-fat or sugary comfort foods and take the necessary steps to curb the urge.

Examples of routines that incorporate elements of movement and meditation are yoga and tai chi.  

Eat healthy by focusing on smaller portions and filling snacks 

Sometimes, giving in to the longing for certain foods makes us human. If you feel the need to snack, it’ll be wise to consider options that are lower in fat and calorie content.

Apple slices coated in peanut butter can provide generous amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats while whetting your appetite for something sweet, for example. You can also snack on spicy roasted chickpeas for a high-fiber and protein combination.

If you’re consuming pre-packaged foods, check the product label to see the size of one serving, and adhere to the amount stated to prevent overconsumption.

Try acupuncture to reduce stress eating

Acupuncture has long been used as a means of easing stress and promoting optimal blood and qi circulation. It can also modulate appetite by strengthening the Spleen and stomach.

“People often become more relaxed after a session of acupuncture. Being consistent with the treatment regime will help them handle stress better, avoiding the need to stuff themselves as a form of escapism,” explains TCM Physician Anita Pee.

The acupressure points that can be worked on include Tai Chong (LV3,), Bai Hui (GV20), and Shen Men (HT7). Each of these works well in reducing the effects of stress, but can also soothe Liver-qi, calm the mind and quieten anxiety respectively.

Herbal Remedies May Help You Eat Healthy

The use of herbal ingredients can supply the same benefits as acupuncture, as well as suppress your appetite.

Physician Anita recommends Bupleurum root (Chai Hu) and Rhizoma Cyperi (Xiang Fu) to soothe Liver-qi, and Cassia seeds (Jue Ming Zi) and lotus leaves (He Ye) for appetite control. Drinking tea infused with rosebuds (Mei Gui Hua) also helps with achieving peace of mind. 

Several studies have shown that the medicinal mushroom Lingzhi helps control the body’s cortisol production. This can help you stop stress eating. As an adaptogenic food, it works by making the body more resistant to stress so the effects are not as detrimental. Lingzhi also has proven anti-anxiety properties.

If you feel guilty about stress eating, stop. After all, everyone has their own way of dealing with emotions. A few simple lifestyle changes can go a long way in helping you stifle your craving for comfort foods when you’re under pressure.

You may also opt to use traditional remedies but do speak to a licensed TCM practitioner prior to doing so. It will help you identify if specific ingredients are suitable for your body constitution.

References

  1. National Library of Medicine. 2014. Stress and Eating Behaviors
  2. Harvard Health Publishing. 2021. Why stress causes people to overeat
  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Tips to Manage Stress Eating
  4. Healthworks. 1 Month of Snacking: 31 Wholesome & Satisfying Snacks to Keep Your Cravings at Bay
  5. International Journal of Medicine Mushrooms. 2016. Evaluation of Antianxiety Potential of Four Ganoderma (Agaricomycetes) Species from India in Mice.
  6. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition. 2011. Ganoderma lucidum (Lingzhi or Reishi).

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