Stressful Eating


As a nutritional eating coach, Suzie Solenberger knows how important it is for people to understand why they eat. It’s not always because they need sustenance. Here Solenberger breaks down how the holidays can affect our consumption habits.

The holidays bring joy and merriment, but for many they also mean higher levels of stress. Stress alters our mind, body and even the types of food we crave.

There are three main types of eaters affected by added holiday stress: emotional, intuitive, and environmental. Our mind may be urging us to dive into Aunt Thelma’s homemade ice cream. Our body may be starving after trying to cram too much into too little time and missing lunch. Our stomach may feel the desire to eat the ice cream until we are stuffed to the rim. The mind and body may align together and send us “cravings” for specific foods. Or the mind may convince us that our bones need more calcium when we are devouring the big bowl of ice cream. Our eating environment may lead us to temptation with easily available ice cream. Whether you are an emotional, intuitive or environmental eater, you can survive the holidays without packing on the pounds if you recognize the signs.

Emotional Eaters

The heightened emotion during stressful times adds a layer to the tricks our mind plays on our body. Emotions alter eating patterns of people in unique ways, just as the runner’s high is different in runners.

Have you ever watched the finish line of a marathon? Some runners look like they are in pure joy, others are running in agony. The endorphins from that exercise high are similar to the reaction our bodies feel with degrees of fullness. Some may not like the feeling of fullness while others may get an “eater’s high.” some people feel a lack of hunger when they go through a bad breakup while others may gain 50 lbs. with a ravenous desire to eat and stuff away the pain. Some describe fullness as “I was happy… I was full,” while others will say “I felt gross… I was a bit too full.” Stress may also mask our awareness of physical hunger, leading us to grab quick “feel good” food.

We may even crave certain types of food. Cravings are often confusing because they are sometimes based on the human body’s need for food and sometimes solely on psychological desire to eat. Without the sensation of true physical hunger, the desire to eat a particular food is based in your mind (though these cravings also have a physiological basis-see Brad Kennington’s article on the G Style side). If you have a craving but don’t feel hungry then trust your gut—it is emotional hunger. Your body does not have a specific need for the food you are craving, but rather your environment and mind are playing a trick. You can begin to decipher and work through your emotional eating through some simple, intuitive eating awareness.

Intuitive Eaters

There is a secret to detecting whether a craving is based on nutrients your body needs. This simple technique usually requires a few months of focus to feel confident in your intuition and figure out how you are going to act on your needs. Once you have learned the technique you will have an infinite internal guide for what your body is craving food-wise: when you wake up, get sick, work out hard or even when you’ve had too many cocktails.

The first step is deciphering whether you are physically hungry or mentally hungry. Physical hunger should be a strong feeling. Hunger is meant to be a physical sensation similar to having to go to the bathroom. You know when you have to go. Peeing and hunger are both physical sensations. We have to learn how to react to both of theses body signals from birth. The trouble is the behavior associated with the pee signal is supported in our environment while the behavior associated with the hunger signal is hardly supported in American culture.

In the beginning, you were wearing a diaper and didn’t know when you had to pee. Slowly you could tell something physical was happening when you felt wetness in your diaper. Then you started to notice a funny feeling just before the wetness. Finally, you peed enough that you could correlate that funny feeling and the need to run to the bathroom. Once you noticed this happening your mom took off your diaper and helped you figure out how to use the toilet. You might have peed in the bed a few times, but slowly and surely, you, like kids around the world, learned to know when it was necessary to go to the bathroom.

Similar to potty training, most adults could take a crash course in learning about their sensations of hunger, non-hunger, fullness and food cravings. Like potty training it takes time and awareness. First, strap a diaper around your mouth (metaphorically) and wander about for a day only allowing yourself to eat when you feel physical hunger. At this point you are not ready to take the diaper off; that would be a mess, like taking the diaper off of a newborn. Infants don’t know how or when they need to pee, just like most adult who don’t know when or what to eat. But pay close attention and over the course of a week you’ll start to notice the moment during your meal that the hunger sensation disappears. Remember, this hunger sensation is the same strong signal as the desire to pee.

During this week notice the degree of hunger and of fullness that feels best to your body. You will slowly begin to realize the times you eat with hunger and without hunger. You also may begin to realize a pattern between your hunger and fullness sensations.

When you correlate your internal hunger/fullness feelings with your environment and your behavior (a bit of what’s called social cognitive theory) then you are ready to take the diaper off and practice! Like the toddler running to the bathroom
(making a mess every now
and then) you will feel the
 freedom from diets and an in
ternal freedom from food that
will rock a beer gut to oblivion
or a triathlete across the finish
line. Don’t worry, at times you will
eat without hunger and you will eat with fullness—we all do this sometimes. What you are looking for is the curiosity in your body. This is the first step in feeding your body exactly what it needs for life. If you know what you are feeling is hunger and you are craving a certain food, then trust your gut… eat the food and continue your curiosity as you get to know your body.

Did you know:

Environmental Eaters

People eat when they are stressed, because the food tastes good and because the food is available. The amount of food we eat can be predicted by our sensations of hunger and the amount of food available in our environment. The hungrier we feel, the more we eat. The more food avail- able the more we eat. The more types of food available the more we eat! Change your environment to survive the holiday stressors:

1. Keep snacks handy to “tide you over” when you feel hungry so you don’t overeat at meals.

2. Get Tupperware containers and fill them full of leftovers. Give the extra food to your friends or the homeless. Don’t keep it around and let it tempt you.

3. Keep impulse food out of eyesight. Store food you eat when you are not hungry in areas you can’t see when you open the pantry, fridge, or freezer.

4. Fill your house with low-fat foods. Higher fat food stake 20 minutes to send a fullness sensation. Just imagine how much ice cream could be swallowed in 20 minutes without even feeling full!

5. Make a holiday meal calendar. Mark all the celebration meals and these will be the meals you might allow yourself to go overboard. From Thanksgiving to New Years Day there are only 7 holiday meals out of 111 regular meals.