When life gets busy or difficult, and your stress levels are on the rise, is your first reaction to head to the fridge? If this is the case, you’re not alone. The American Psychological Association reports that 27% of adults say they eat to manage stress, and 34% of those who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say that this is a habit.
With most adults in the United States being overweight or obese, increasing their risk for Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease (Journal of American Medical Association, 307(5)) it is likely that an even greater percentage of the population falls into the category of stress eaters, whether they have recognized this habit or not. And given the serious health consequences, not to mention the emotional and spiritual ones, it is a topic worth paying attention to.
8 Ways to Combat Stress Eating
If you are struggling to put a stop to stress eating, here are eight ways to start transforming your attitude and lifestyle:
1. Understand your stress eating
Maybe you’ve always thought that having chocolate after a difficult day was par for the course, and a good way to cheer you up. Certainly, God created food for our enjoyment, and the tantalizing taste of a favorite treat on our tastebuds is something given for our delight.If you’re concerned about stress eating, however, the line has likely been crossed and food is being used to fill an emotional hole that it isn’t intended to. Perhaps it has become a habit to stay up late at night working and raid the snack cupboard, or to indulge in unhealthy food when you’re feeling tired and wrung out.
You may have reached a point where you have considerable weight gain, and the “benefits” of emotional eating (stress relief) have diminished, and instead, you feel mastered by the habit.
2. Understand why it needs to stop
The idea of “mastery” is exactly why stress eating needs to stop. In 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul tells the Corinthians, ““I have the right to do anything,” you say – but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything” – but I will not be mastered by anything.”In the same way, as Christians, we are free to eat anything we like – if we want to eat five hamburgers in a row, we can. Certainly, we can see that it would not be advisable or beneficial for our health, but we are free in Christ and under no law to behave in a certain way. This same freedom, however, enables us up to act in a way that brings glory to God.
We are free to display the fruits of the spirit, which include self-control, and should not be enslaved to using food in an addictive way to soothe our stress. We need to recognize that at the heart of stress eating is idolatry – we are bowing down to a very insufficient idol that can offer us what appears as relief, but then very soon berates us our choice and leaves us feeling guilty and hopeless – such is the nature of being enslaved.
3. Pray for God’s help
When we are honest about the serious spiritual battle that is at play with our stress eating, we realize that it is not something that can be easily overcome. Any habit is difficult to break, but when we are relying on it to give us something that only God can bring, we need to pray for a heart change – a change that will allow us to confess for our idolatry and move forward towards victory.
He tells us in Philippians 4:6-7 that when we bring our requests to Him in thanksgiving, He will give us peace and we do not need to be anxious. So many people are trapped in the cycle of emotional eating, but as Christians, we have the power to change and to ask God for the strength to transform how we essentially deal with our stress.
4. Be aware of what you eat and whenTrack your stress eating habits so that you are aware of what temptations you are most often succumbing to and when. Perhaps as a busy mom, you try to re-energize and recalibrate during your baby’s nap time, by hunting in the pantry for something yummy.
When we are tired and cortisol (stress hormone) levels are high, our bodies tend to crave sugary, starch-heavy goods, which just spike our blood sugar levels and leave us feeling more depleted after a short-lived high. Write down your danger times so that you’ll know when you need to be on high alert.
5. Make your action plan
Once you’ve committed to transformation and are prayerfully resolved to make it happen, you need to decide on a plan that will help you to practically change your stress eating habit. There are endless healthy eating plans available, with the pendulum having swung away from fad diets that don’t work in the long-term, towards sensible guidelines which target a comprehensive approach and nutritional choices.
If you are not already eating in an ordered way (for example, three meals a day with a few snacks in between) then your stress eating may also be in part from hunger. Making small tweaks can make a substantial difference towards reducing emotional eating.
Printing out verses and putting them on the fridge and in visible places is also an effective way to remind yourself to stop and take check of what you’re about to do; too often our eating becomes mindless, and we are not even aware of what we are putting in our mouths.
6. Shift the focusWorship issues cannot be eliminated, but rather, our worship needs to be re-directed. Take the opportunity to grow closer to God, as you move away from stress eating towards the One who is our true “refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). Write a prayer journal so you can see the changes that are happening, both on your waistline and, most importantly, in your heart.
On a practical level, shift the focus away from indulging in food to eliminate stress, towards healthier pursuits – spend some time gardening, do a yoga class, read a few pages from a book. Work out which activities you find restorative and fit them into your schedule. God has made us physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual beings and so our habits need to be worked on from every aspect of our being.
7. Push through the pain barrier
“The devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8b) and would like nothing better than to destroy one’s efforts to overcome stress eating. This may sound overdramatic, but anyone caught in the battle of trying to beat what is essentially a food addiction can attest to the hopelessness and discouragement that can follow a failure.
Knowing that it’s going to be tough, especially at the beginning, can help us to stand firm and push through, submitting our eating habits to God, resisting the devil, and seeing him flee (James 4:7).
8. Enjoy the fruits of self-control
There is nothing sweeter than gaining victory over an area of our lives in which we previously were out of control. Knowing that God is at work and cares so intimately about us, and our issues with stress eating, whether they be big or small, is immensely comforting and can only give rise to praise.
Successfully combating stress eating begins in the mind. We need to get to the point where we are convicted that our response to life’s troubles is sinful, insofar as we are turning away from God and towards food for comfort.
Only then can we start to make small steps towards change, knowing that it will be a long journey with many setbacks along the way. In the end, however, we will be able to look back with gratitude at how far we’ve come, and with even greater praise in our hearts for God’s redeeming work over this aspect of our lives.
“Food Board”, Courtesy of Brooke Lark, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Burger”, Courtesy of Robin Stickel, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Fruit Donuts”, Courtesy of Brooke Lark, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Fruit Basket”, Courtesy of Rebecca, Unsplash.com, CC0 License