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November 21, 2013

Food Anxiety and How to Deal with Stress Eating

My mom has always been thin. She was never a huge exerciser, and I never recall her dieting. And honestly, looking back, I can’t remember her even thinking about food all that much. Sure, she has a sweet tooth that I inherited :) but overall, my whole life, she’s seemed to pay very little attention to food.

How … implausible.

I remember one time, when I was deep in my competition lifestyle and went home for a week to visit, I spent all day every day working out and prepping my food, only to eat 6 times a day straight out of Tupperware. My mom said to me (with love), “Jill, if you didn’t work out so much, you probably wouldn’t need to be eating constantly.”

At the time, I scoffed. This was my lifestyle–she just didn’t get it. I eat, I train, I eat, I train, zzzzzzzzz … and I also have no life. Little did I know that she’s the one who had it figured out all along.

Looking back, it would’ve been nice to not have my life controlled by exercise and food. It would’ve been nice to NOT be obsessed with eating constantly.

But I guess you get the lessons you need at the exact right time you need them. At that time, I didn’t have the perspective and I wasn’t conscious of the amount of mental stress and energy I dedicated to food and exercise.


I wrote in my last post about food FOMO and how we can become obsessed with “missing out” on food experiences. The desire to have every single thing for fear of never having it again can keep us struggling.

In the post, I revealed the many embarrassing ways that I’ve been obsessed and anxious over food my entire life. Feeling starving as a child, indulging in ridiculous sweets and treats as a teen and then getting anxious about there not being enough food as an adult. To the point of actually crying when Jade tried to take my Reese’s Pieces one time. I’m insane!!

And yet many of you said the post resonated with you strongly–to the point that you thought I was “in your head.”

Food anxiety and stress eating are rarely talked about. Because, let’s face it, we feel shameful about them. And we think we’re alone in the struggle.

But if the response I got from last week’s post is any indication, we are far from alone.

Often, we don’t even realize its going on because it’s just our modus operandi. Wherever we go, we get excited at the potential for amazing, once-in-a-lifetime food indulgences and are constantly worrying about, is there going to be ENOUGH OF EVERYTHING?? Hell, I’m worried I won’t have enough wine for tonight! :)

The thing to realize about food anxiety is that is stems from a fear of not being able to get the “hit” we need from food, for whatever purpose we need it.

Clients ask me about how to stop “stress eating” all the time. Same thing. We stress-eat because we feel that eating to our heart’s desire in some way calms us. It soothes us. It’s comfort. It’s relaxation. It’s what we do for fun.

But the joke is on us. Because in the end, the “fun” of food ends up being not all that fun.

It’s a brain chemistry issue.

You may have heard of the brain chemical dopamine. It’s a neurotransmitter that’s responsible for things like boosting mood, pleasure, motivation, compulsion, competitiveness, drive, etc. It controls the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. When we get a “dopamine hit”–we feel reward. Dopamine is released in activities such as eating, having sex, working out, recreational drug use, even getting affirmation from others, etc. It makes us feel good, and then it reinforces those behaviors by keeping us wanting to do whatever we need to in order to experience that pleasure again.

Hence the term “dopamine hit.” It can become addicting.

The problem with dopamine release is that we achieve it more fully when engaging in pleasure-seeking behaviors, often the same ones that prioritize instant gratification over long-term success. E.g. eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. And the more we push the dopamine button, the more those pathways become less and less responsive. And we end up needing more in order to achieve the same effect. This might explain why, for example, you used to feel satisfied with a couple of Oreos, and now you need to eat an entire roll. And not to go too off-topic, but this is the same reason that watching too much porn may make someone less able to get excited during actual sex.

This is also why people say eating sweets is “a slippery slope”–the more we have, the more we want. And people who have given them up for a period of time cite not really feeling any compulsion to eat them.

Part of breaking this dopamine cycle is to start re-sensitizing yourself to those sensations by waning yourself from them. Of course, easier said than done, right? The fastest way to stop going down the dopamine rabbit hole is to pull back on the behaviors that reinforce it.

So is the answer to simply stop eating sweets? Ideally, yes. But is it practical? Probably not. The idea that you’re never going to eat sugar again is a little short-sighted and inconceivable. So what I recommend to get around it is practice ‘controlled cheating’. And yes, it’s certainly a practice. You don’t just get it. You need to work it. 

Also, certain foods help boost dopamine naturally, including what we use at Metabolic Effect. The ME Coaoa Drink: 1-2 TB unsweetened cocoa powder (i.e. baking cocoa) mixed with hot water and a few drops of stevia to create a “fake hot chocolate.” In addition to boosting dopamine naturally, this takes the edge of cravings and keeps your mouth occupied for an hour :)

It’s a routine issue.

In Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, he explores the habit loop: cue–>routine–>reward.

Often, our desire for food stems from practiced indulgence, i.e. HABITS borne out of routine. And by definition, habits are effortless. They are the path of least resistance. So of course you will do them without thinking.

I am sure if you think about it, a lot of your behaviors around eating stem from a routine you’ve established in your schedule.

Friday nights represent “relaxing” with wine. Sunday nights represent a big, fun family dinner. Wednesday nights represent a mid-week “treat” at Happy Hour, etc. We are always using food as a reward: “Congratulations, you made it through another draining week at work! Here, have a whole bottle of wine!” :)

I’m certainly not judging at all, considering this was my absolute M.O. for years.

For example, years ago, I used to *need* a sweet every day around 2-3pm when I was working my 9-to-5, as if it was my reward for getting through another day. The cue was the time of day (down-time at the office), the routine was this elaborate walk from my office to the complete other side of the building where there was bulk candy set up–I’d get my bag, fill up with the favorite “usual” goodies, then walk back to my desk. And then the reward–the satisfaction of the sweet and the completion of my routine.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? Once you identify YOUR cue, think about how you can change it.

Here’s how I did it: Another example. I used to have a habit loop that revolved around nightly sugar-free frozen yogurt. The cue was my drive home and the fact that it as at the end of a long day of training clients. The routine was driving to the fro-yo place (which has a drive-thru! How easy can it be?!) and seeing what the SF flavor of the day was and seeing the usual people working (…lol, this is getting hilarious as I write it…) and then drive home to “relax” with fro-yo (the reward).

To break this loop, I started changing my routine in certain ways. I wouldn’t come home the same way, or I would go to Starbucks to work and get a huge, hot green tea instead of going right home, or I would make a deal with myself, that I could have fro-yo only after I abstained for 3 nights in a row. All worked, and I hardly ever get it anymore.

Think about how you might change your routine so as to break your loop.

It’s a band-aid issue.

The bottom line is that eating for a reward or eating because you are bored or eating because you need a feel-good “hit” are all ways we’re covering up a larger issue.

And though it’s certainly common, stuffing our faces to deal with stress, anxiety or unhappiness doesn’t serve us. We think comfort food is relaxing, when in reality, we end up more UNcomfortable in the end, don’t we?

So the key here is to examine what else is going on:

Are you eating because you’re bored? If so, find something to do in the evenings (here are 32 ideas). Learn a new skill or take up a new hobby.

Are you eating because you’re emotionally stressed or unhappy? This is super-common. We eat to feel better about ourselves, but in the end, it only makes us feel worse. Find other ways to boost your self-esteem, like hitting the gym, trying a yoga class or starting a blog where you can express yourself freely.

You’ll also want to examine the source of the stress–job, relationship, finances, family, etc. Delving into this stuff is anything but easy, and it takes time. But part of it begins with discovering your purpose and passion. If you don’t know what you love or don’t feel like what you do matters, then of course you feel helpless. So of course you’ll binge. Because who cares? In the bottom of your heart, you know the truth. Only one person can really care enough to make the choice to change, and that’s you :)

Waiting for others to change or be different so that you can be happy is a trap. It’s a trap that immobilizes you, where you get to stay the victim of circumstances and never have to do the work TO MAKE YOURSELF happy. People will always do what they do. Once you realize that, you can finally start taking one small step at a time to realize your own personal freedom and happiness (Could seriously write an entire blog on just this concept, so I apologize for the tangent :)).

Are you eating because you are legitimately stressed, physiologically? Your body no likey. Ways in which your BODY might be stressed (causing you to overeat), when in your mind you don’t feel stressed: too much long-duration cardio, too low carb or too low carl, sleep deprivation, waiting too long to eat between meals or fasting, too much dietary deprivation, low leptin (as a result of low cal/carb dieting for long periods of time), not paying attention to stress-reducing behaviors, overtraining. Could your body be stressed, but your mind not feel it? Your stress response is the same whether it comes from the body or the mind, and the result is increased hunger and cravings.

The solution is to focus on stress-reducation activities, prioritize sleep and eat more frequently, and maybe even bump carbs or cals.

Think of food anxiety on a spectrum.

Food anxiety is a spectrum where the extremes represent the highest stress–complete deprivation or eating everything you want. Neither one of those scenarios are relaxing. Even though we think eating to our heart’s desire is relaxing, in the end, it’s really not. Because now we have the guilt, remorse and physical discomfort on top of it. No thanks.

The middle point on the spectrum is the least stressful. The moderate place. The balanced place. The place my mom lives, and what I’ve been working toward the last 3 years.

This morning, I had my first meal at 11am, and it was 4 slices of bacon, about 15 asparagus spears and a Blood Mary. #sorrynotsorry Is this the healthiest thing on earth? No. Will it have me losing fat left and right? Nope. But honestly, it was completely satisfying and not the worst thing on earth. I don’t drink booze for breakfast all the time :) But when I do, it’s on vacation in the mountains, ha! But … I feel great. No stress. No worries. No added pounds. No desire to go back and eat more, drink more, indulge more.

My personal approach to nutrition now is to find that moderate, middle place and then practice it. Never eating everything I want, but also never feeling completely deprived. This is a practice that took me three years to hone to the point of effortlessness. I’m not getting lean round-the-clock, but I maintain my weight with very little mental energy. My physique is essentially automated at this point. Not perfect. But not stressful in the least. In fact, like my mom, I rarely think about food.

Could you try to find that middle place on the food anxiety spectrum? Not deprived, but not eating with abandon either?

It takes conscious effort, practice and time. But the reward is never feeling the need to bury your head in a package of Oreos again. Never feeling the complete compulsion to eat everything in sight. Never feeling like you have to drown your feelings in food. Because you don’t ever allow yourself to get to that point of deprivation in the first place.

Give it a whirl, and report back. One foot in front of the other, strapping in for the long haul and accumulating small wins over time that eventually add up to big successes. It takes courage to try a new way. But it’s time to admit that the old way is not working. Let me know how you do! Ox, Jill

Related: 7 Things Dieters Do That Lean People Don’t


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