By Dawn Wilson, Crosswalk.com
The reality of a joke during the Covid-19 pandemic hit home with me: “You’ve heard of the Freshman 15? This is the Covid-19!”
During the early months of the pandemic, I struggled with stress eating—and gained 17 pounds! But the Holy Spirit brought my emotion-driven indulgence to a screeching halt with these words, “I will help you with the stress, so you can deal with your out-of-whack eating.” (Yes, the Holy Spirit can say things like “out-of-whack.”)
Stress Eating, also called emotional eating, is a common problem for those who struggle with their weight, but overindulging regularly can harm physical and mental health. It doesn’t fix emotional problems. It actually makes a person feel worse with guilt for overeating.
As I thought and prayed, the Lord gave me a process that helped me cope. I made signs with eight key words—all beginning with the letter “P”—and I taped them to my refrigerator and cupboard.
Here are my 8 ways to deal with stress eating.
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1. PAUSE to Think
Part of the problem with stress eating is we can eat without realizing we’re eating. Taking time to pause and think is an important first step.
Signs of stress eating are eating out of boredom, eating with shame or anger, craving specific foods when upset, eating to “feel better,” eating to escape problems or anxious thoughts, eating alone, or even eating right after seeing a food advertisement.
It helps to slow down, pause and evaluate before reaching for that chocolate bar, tub of ice cream or any other comfort foods. We don’t accidentally eat anything.
Author Danna Demetre wrote that we need to identify the lies we believe about eating, take negative thoughts captive, construct new thoughts to counteract the lies, and repeat this healthy self-talk until new, dominant thoughts form.
I asked myself, “What is triggering this desire for food right now?”
Sometimes I had an actual nutritious need (body hunger); but with stress eating, I more likely tried to feed a perceived emotional need (head hunger), or I believed a lie about eating, like “Who knows what will happen tomorrow. I’ll eat this bag of Snickerdoodles now!” I had to counter that lie with the truth: God knows my tomorrows, and He can help me resist stress-motivated habits. It also helped to keep a food journal in the kitchen to jot down foods and feelings. Awareness is a powerful tool.
2. PRAY for Strength
The enemy is tricky and likes to confuse and frustrate us (2 Corinthians 2:11). Food is everywhere, from the Food Channel to TV ads for milk shakes, and we love food excessively! We need to pray for strength—not our strength to resist, but His strength to empower. Jesus said, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
As we learn to abide in Jesus more consistently, we can ask God to empower us in our emotional battles and times of need (Hebrews 4:16). We can prayerfully search for biblical thinking about eating and self-control.
As Lysa TerKeurst wrote in her Made to Crave Devotional, “The only way to negate an emotional eating trigger is to match it with truth.”
As I prayed for emotional and mental strength, I also prayed about ways to get moving and strengthen my body as much as possible given my current physical restrictions. Exercise and physical activities—as well as getting off the couch to get involved in a home improvement project, spend time with a hobby, clean out the garage and organize my closet—helped to boost my mood.
This fostered greater ability to contend with temptations and manage my eating. God reminded me that a simple activity like gardening could get me out of the house and exercising muscles. When we feel like we’ve accomplished something, this can help relieve stress.
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3. PLAN with Wisdom
An old adage expresses great truth: “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” Not only should we plan what we will eat, we also can plan new ways to relieve stress. Proverbs 27:12 says the prudent person “sees danger” and takes action to avoid it. If we’re not sure what to do, we can ask God for wisdom (James 1:5).
This part of the process looks for healthy alternatives to constantly stuffing our face. A walk or sport, retreating to a quiet space to meet with God, working on a puzzle or finishing a craft project while drinking a big glass of lemon water—there are so many ways to create healthy systems to replace unhealthy habits. It also helps to maintain a regular meal schedule.
During Covid-19, my family’s eating patterns changed somewhat, but we still tried to stay consistent and wisely plan healthy meals. We didn’t deprive ourselves of food, because that would only lead to late-night binging. Restrictive dieting isn’t that effective for long-term weight loss anyway. We prepared healthy, home-cooked meals, trying out new recipes—which also helped to squash the boredom factor.
4. PREPARE with Diligence
While occasional treats are OK, candies set out in a candy dish or cookies on the kitchen counter—tempting snacks within eyesight—won’t help our resolve. Emotional eating usually involves craving specific foods, typically high-sugar and high-fat treats.
According to Harvard Health, in the short term stress can shut down appetite, but if stress persists, cortisol is released into the body that increases appetite. In other words, constant stress eating stimulates the part of the brain that increases overeating; so we need diligence to change an unruly stress-eating habit (Galatians 6:9).
I discovered I craved soothing chocolate when I was depressed, and crunchy potato chips when I was frustrated or upset. As part of my preparation to overcome emotional eating, I banished those tempting foods to lesser-used cupboards after eliminating them altogether for a while when the temptation felt too great.
I also took time to prepare my heart to deal with emotions in the future (1 Corinthians 10:13; Galatians 5:16; Psalm 119:11). People have different ways to deal with treats. In my case, I decided to limit sweet or fatty snacks to family events.
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5. PICK with Care
We need intentionality in the battle against stress eating, picking what we ingest with care. We can wisely choose alternatives to junk food and have them handy, aiming for nutrient-dense, high protein, high fiber and healthy fat choices—not empty calories.
We often eat something when our body is actually screaming for water! Chronic dehydration is related to an elevated risk of obesity. Drinking sufficient water or picking healthy alternatives helps with steady hydration. For those who drink wine or alcohol: Yes, it can help us unwind, but keep in mind it also can increase appetite and lower inhibitions, making it easier to fall into a pattern of emotional eating.
It’s also helpful to pick the time and location for our eating. If at all possible, it’s better to sit at a table than lounging on the couch or eating on the run.
I created little snack alternatives: low-salt mixed nuts with carob chips, carrot coins and celery sticks, cherry tomatoes, small cubes of cheese, etc.—all ready to grab from the shelf or refrigerator.
Hydrating with fruited water helped alleviate stressed moods. Being more present as I ate—not distracted by television or social media—gave me a healthier mindset. Instead of chomping on Cheetos while watching TV, I decided to make the couch off-limits for everyday eating. Many days, I used my best china and crystal to create a positive thinking and eating experience.
6. PORTION for Control
One of the signs of stress eating is over-indulgence in food, even healthy foods. Our emotions can lead us to go crazy with the amount of food we eat. Strict portion control and not eating directly from containers helps with that. We also need to define “single serving.”
My husband and I worked together on this one. We read labels and were surprised what “single serving” means—often much less than we are used to eating. As noted above, I poured out or scooped single portions into appropriately-sized bags or containers.
When I did plan for an occasional dessert, we served ice cream in small custard cups, or I cut brownies or slices of pie to half the size of our usual treat. A big change for me: the proper portion size for healthy mixed nuts is far less than my former big handfuls.
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7. PROCESS to Understand
There may be faulty hormones or genetic reasons that influence our weight, but most people simply have a food control issue. It’s important to know the difference between stress eating, overeating and disoriented eating.
Stress eating is the practice of consuming large quantities of food—usually so-called “comfort food”—in a response to feelings. According to MedicineNet, nutritional experts estimate 75% of overeating is caused by emotions.
The Bible identifies overeating as “gluttony,” a sin many Christians like to ignore. The Bible warns about gluttony (Proverbs 23:20-21; Proverbs 28:7), and says being able to say “no” to anything in excess is possible because of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in us, which includes self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Disoriented or disordered eating includes Anorexia, Binge Eating Disorder, Bulimia, and other such disorders.
If we are struggling with emotional stress, we may need to contact a Bible-based counselor or nutritionist, or a psychologist to help us process what is causing our stress-eating habit.
Professionals can help us figure out how to deal with people in our environment who trigger our stress, issues from the past that crop up when we are emotionally stressed, or problems that cause anxiety and stressful thoughts. Tough circumstances like financial problems or a health crisis can expose many points of concern.
If a disordered eating issue is present, organizations like the National Eating Disorders Association hotline are also available to help.
Before I went to bed many nights during Covid-19, I processed my eating habits for that day. I asked the Lord to remind me where I blew it, and help me understand what lie I believed about eating and the truth that countered that lie.
I saw how I gave Satan a foothold in my life with stress eating and needed to battle for freedom (Ephesians 4:27; James 4:17). I discovered my reasons for overeating were not acceptable excuses. I also realized I was trying to shoulder my own anxieties rather than taking them to the Lord (1 Peter 5:7; Philippians 4:6-7).
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8. PRAISE the Lord
Complaining and discontent often pair up with stress eating. We grumble about our situation, stew about it for a while, and emotionally ramp up until we think we might explode. Then we go for the Oreos and Doritos! Choosing joy and gratitude in our circumstances—intentionally reversing our emotions—helps us get back on track with our eating too.
I surrendered my appetite to God and asked Him to help me glorify Him in my eating (James 4:7; 1 Corinthians 10:31). Then, rather than the false guilt of self-condemnation, I practiced renewed self-discipline and self-compassion. As I took my failings to the Lord and confessed sinful attitudes and behaviors, I took comfort in the knowledge God understands my weaknesses and wants to help me (Hebrews 4:15-16; 2 Corinthians 12:9).
One week during the pandemic, I decided to wear a gaudy bracelet. Every time I raised my hand to my mouth, it reminded me (1) to be grateful for God creating delicious and nutritious foods for me to eat in appropriate quantities, (2) to trust the sovereign God who loves me, (3) to choose joy in the moment, and (4) to praise the Lord for the small changes I saw Him making in my eating habits.
It was this element of praise—rather than grumbling or anxious thoughts—that most affected my emotions, attitudes and behaviors, and bolstered healthy, stress-less eating.
Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com and Christianity.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach.
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