Stress-Eating Is Real but It Doesn’t Have to Ruin Your Life
I have been a stress-eater for as long as I can remember. The first thing I want to do when a wave of mini panic hits me is to put food in my mouth—something crunchy-salty-chewy, please—and bite down hard. If I’m not eating, I’m clenching my jaw; if I’m not clenching my jaw, I’m guzzling a beverage—something fizzy-funky-bubbly, immediately—and if I’m not guzzling a beverage, well, send help.
I’m not alone. Many of us self-soothe our anxieties through the act of eating because it works in the immediate, I need a fix sense. On the spectrum of coping mechanisms, stress-eating falls somewhere between perfectly innocuous and potentially severely damaging.
It’s doubtful that any of us takes a completely objective view toward the act of feeding ourselves. Pretzels just taste too good; it’s just too satisfying to chomp tortilla chips. Conventional wisdom tells us to battle stress by engaging in gentle, calming activities like going for a walk, drawing a bath, or breaking out a set of crayons and an adult coloring book. Better still, tackling the root of the problem through meditation or counseling. These are all excellent ideas, but if you’re anything like me, they’re not things you’re going to actually do when the stress monster calls.
Because, if you’re anything like me, it calls when you’re at work, when it’s 2:30 p.m. and you’ve been playing catch-up all day, and that one last thing gets dropped on your desk. You feel like your face is melting off and you’re going to burst into a thousand little shards of human if you don’t do something—something that isn’t sitting at your desk and tapping away at your keyboard. You don’t want to soak in a tub. You want to go for the bowl of M&Ms.
But you don’t have to. Over the years, I’ve learned to channel my stress-eating into a positive way of dealing with day-to-day aggravations. The key is knowing why you want to eat something. I’m not taking about an existential reason but a purely physical one. Once you understand the desires behind your cravings, you can make choices that scratch that stress itch, while giving you a nutritional boost. Really.
Here are some of my tried-and-true (mostly) healthy stress foods:
If You Crave Salty
This is my Achilles heel when it comes to food choices. I must have been a deer in a past life, because I’d be happy tonguing a salt lick all day. But going for a salty snack doesn’t have to mean handfuls of potato chips. Or at least it shouldn’t.
Harvest Snaps: These snap pea crisps are made with like, two ingredients. (Okay, six. I checked.) Get the Caesar flavor!
Lightly salted almonds: I cannot emphasize this enough: Remove them from their container. It’s way too easy to eat a cup of nuts without realizing it.
Triscuits: I don’t know when you last checked out the Triscuit aisle, but wow. So many options! The cracked pepper and olive oil is a personal favorite.
If You Crave Chewy
Chewy food is awesome because it takes a while to eat—meaning you’re engaged for longer, and the craving can be met before nutritional catastrophe. Because chewy food is often very calorie-dense, measure out your snack before diving in (read: don’t eat from the bag).
No-sugar-added fruit leather: Bear in mind here that this is made from dried fruit—it’s easy to go overboard on the portion. Make your serving last and enjoy every bite.
Turkey or beef jerky: I’ve been enjoying THINK brand’s Sriracha Honey flavor. It comes in 90-calorie packages, and I’m always surprised at how much you get in each bag.
Dried fruit: Some options – apple rings, apricots, figs, mango, or papaya spears. Choose options with no added sugar—it’s already sweet.
Gin-Gins Chewy Ginger Candy Made with real ginger, these are seriously spicy and last forever. Two pieces will set you back a mere 40 calories—try the hot coffee flavor!
If You Crave Crunchy
This is a biggie for most of us. There’s something so satisfying about the sound and feel of crunching down on something. Try to minimize chips, potato or corn, and choose foods with a more attractive nutritional profile.
Baby carrots: Put a smear of hummus in a little bowl and dip—don’t dunk right from the tub.
Radishes: Dipped in a little butter and sea salt, these are truly one of the most satisfying vegetables to eat.
Mary’s Gone Crackers: They’re gluten-free, but what I like about them is how sturdy and thick each one is. The Caraway flavor is tasty.
If You Crave Creamy
Creamy food takes us back to simpler times, when our biggest concern was whether we were getting puréed pears or peaches. Steer clear of the usual suspects like ice cream and get your fix without ingesting a gut bomb.
Cottage cheese: This doesn’t sound exciting but add a little honey or hot sauce, and it’s actually quite delicious. Plus, it’s a superfood!
Yogurt: I’m a fan of Noosa yogurt, which is Australian-style and sinfully creamy. It’s flavored with real ingredients like pumpkin, coconut, and Mexican chocolate, and it even comes in smaller snack-perfect sizes.
Roasted sweet potato: I am not above taking a fork to a whole roasted sweet potato. Batch-roast a few and keep in the fridge or make quick work with the microwave. A drizzle of toasted sesame oil and a pinch of salt goes a long way.
If You Crave Sweet
Oh, cookies. You’re so tempting and yet so evil. Sweet teeth can be met with natural foods, but I’m trying to be realistic here. A little of the good stuff can go a long way in truly quashing a craving. Put. It. In. A. Bowl!
Chocolate-covered nuts: This is a tricky one. Many chocolate-covered fruits and nuts are made with a dizzying range of ingredients from palm oil to high fructose corn syrup. Check labels before you stock up. I feel pretty good about Tierra Farms.
Annie’s Bunnies: If chomping the heads off of adorable miniature bunny grahams doesn’t calm your stress, I can’t help you. I like the cinnamon ones.
Grapes: Some people consider frozen grapes a lifesaver. To me, it feels like rolling marbles around in my mouth. Choose the temperature that works for you. Bonus points if you can find ‘em: Ludicrously sweet cotton candy grapes.
If You Crave Bubbly & Fizzy
By now, we know that soda is Enemy No. 1. But you don’t have to reach for a Diet Coke to quench your stress thirst. I haven’t had pop in years and no longer even crave it. Instead, I find myself reaching for...
Kombucha: If you’re a fan of fermented foods, kombucha is a great pick. It’s fermented tea chock-a-block full of naturally-occuring probiotics. It comes in about a zillion flavors these days, but I’m partial to Health-Ade’s Matcha Cold Brew. https://health-ade.com/
Sparkling water: La Croix is a calorie- and sugar-free option, and it’s fun to choose flavors based on your mood. I keep a couple of cases in my office for emergency-use-only.
Homemade soda: Yeah, this one only works if you’re the type of person to plan in advance and keep it stocked. I am not that type of person. But perhaps you are!