It’s an all-too-familiar scenario: your arm reaches into your desk drawer, seemingly on its own, to retrieve a bag of chips, that leftover box of Smarties or a biscuit you had stashed for later. Before you know it, the treat is in your mouth. You feel a rush of excitement, and then a calmness, which is followed by guilt. Eventually, you’re back to feeling stressed, which triggers the cycle all over again. And stopping the cycle is tough.
Especially since people tend to eat sugary, junky food when they are stressed out. This kind of food actually reduces levels of the hormone cortisol in your bloodstream, thus reducing stress (at least temporarily) and hardwiring you to seek out these kinds of food the next time you’re under pressure.
The solution? Reminding yourself that you’re in the throes of a craving—and aren’t actually hungry—can sometimes be enough to snap you back to reality. But when it’s not, don’t worry. You still have plenty of tools to curb that stress-induced urge to eat, like these 11 strategies and snack ideas from dieticians and food psychologists.
1. Sip on Something with Cinnamon
“If I have a mug, some boiling water, a cinnamon stick, and a teaspoon of honey, then I have what I need to curb sugar cravings when stressed,” says Dr. Susan Albers, psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and New York Times Bestselling Author of Eating Mindfully. “Cinnamon has been clinically shown to help keep insulin levels in check,” she says. Consider adding a sprinkle to your morning coffee, too.
2. Take a 15-Minute Walk
“When the urge to eat out of stress, boredom, sadness, or another emotions hits, I head outside and go for a walk or run,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Jessica Fishman Levinson. “Exercise releases endorphins that can stimulate relaxation, and the fresh air is also a natural stress reducer,” she says. In fact, walking for just 15 minutes can curb cravings for sugary snacks, according to one Austrian study.
3. Peel a Naartjie
The simple act of peeling a naartjie is a relaxation technique. “Peeling citrus fruit is a mini-meditative moment—you have to drop whatever you’re doing to engage both hands,” says Albers. Even cooler, the smell of citrus has been shown to promote calm—which might just quell your urge to indulge on those free koeksisters at work.
For optimum relaxation, slowly peel the fruit in a spiral pattern as you breathe in deeply to inhale the scent.
When you’re done peeling, eat the fruit one segment at a time, taking a moment to savour each bite.
4. Make Avocado Toast
“Healthy fats, protein and fibre in avocado work together to keep you satiated, leaving you less likely to indulge on something else,” says Levinson. “Plus, the complex carbohydrates in whole-grain bread can help boost the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain,” she says.
5. Think Long-Term
“Research indicates that the pleasure you get from eating comfort foods lasts only three minutes,” says Albers.“Keeping this number front and centre in my mind is helpful. I say to myself, ‘what is going to make me feel better for longer than 3 minutes?’ Usually, it’s not a cookie,” she says.
6. Just Have a Small Taste
A little can go a long way, says Dr. Wendy Bazilian, coauthor of Eat Clean, Stay Lean. You might find that one bite is all you really wanted, anyway. And the research backs this notion up: eating less than 15g of chocolate or chips satisfied peoples’ cravings just as well as eating a portion as much as 10 times bigger, according to one Cornell University study. (Just be careful if you know that the food in question is a trigger for you. In that case, it’s probably better to save the snack for a time that you planned ahead for, rather than eating it on impulse.)
6. Get Distracted
“Keep your hands and mind busy with some sort of fun activity,” says Dr. Jennifer Nasser, associate professor of nutrition sciences at Drexel University. Bazilian agrees, adding that texting a friend, checking your email, or taking a few minutes to play a game on your phone are all viable ways to ride out a stress-induced craving.
7. Be Strategic With Snacks
If you’re the type of person who tends to munch in response to stress, make sure you have some low-calorie finger foods on hand such as baby carrots, apple slices or celery, suggests Nasser. And consider adding some protein in the form of nut butters to boost satiety.
“If you prefer a sweet treat, mix something sweet with something protein-rich (think cottage cheese with honey and a dash of cinnamon),” she says. “That way you’ll get the sweet taste in addition to fullness signals that protein sends to the brain to get you to stop eating.”
8. Treat Yourself—but With a Plan
“Think of what you’d really, really enjoy,” says Bazilian. Is that a piece of chocolate, or a small bowl of your favourite ice cream? “Whatever it is, plan to treat yourself once or twice a week,” she says. Set your sights high and don’t settle for the junk food that’s commonly available in offices or takeaway restaurants.
9. Brew Tea and Take 5 Minutes To Unwind
“I like to take a few minutes to meditate with a cup of chamomile tea when stress strikes,” says Levinson. It’s no surprise that slowing down and tuning into your breathing to meditate is a stress reliever, but chamomile has actually been shown to improve anxiety in adults who consume it, too.
10. Don’t Skip Meals
Good nutrition is incredibly important for stress management—just consider the fact that people who consume inadequate amounts of magnesium (which is most of us) may experience increased sugar cravings. But it’s hard to get all the nutrients you need if you skip meals, says Bazilian. Plus, skipping meals can cause dips in blood sugar, which can lead to cravings and make stress eating more likely to occur.
11. Sub In Healthy Snacks
If your schedule is unavoidably hectic, make a bunch of pre-portioned healthy snacks that can sub for a larger sit-down meal—think almonds and raisins, plain yoghurt, fresh fruit, individually portioned 30g cheeses and whole-grain crackers. Then have them at the ready so they’re as convenient for you to eat as chips, pretzels, sweets, cake and those aforementioned koeksisters.