The Healthy Executive

33 Countermeasures for Stress-Eating (Part 1)

Reading Time  3.0 minutes (1800 words @ 600 wpm)

(take effective measures to protect your health)

(take effective measures to protect your health)

  • Busy professionals struggle with stress-eating, especially when traveling.
  • There are 15 reasons why you stress-eat.
  • After years of experimentation, I developed 33 countermeasures to take control of stress-eating.
  • Read More the first 17 countermeasures you can take against stress eating.

The First 17 Countermeasures for Stress-Eating

  • Audit: You can’t eat what you don’t have. At home I audited my pantry and donated any problem foods to my local food bank (mainly salty foods like chips). I know this can be tricky with kids in the house, so I made my kids honorary food-cops. Their job was to make sure I didn’t “break the law” by eating their snacks. At the office I made sure we had healthy alternatives delivered to the staff room (like fresh fruit). When traveling I make it a point to rely on my Kindle reader to avoid airport newsstands and bookstores and their food temptations. In hotels, I will ask for a room without a mini-bar or decline the key.
  • Displace: It’s harder to eat when you are full. I made it a habit to frequently eat small healthy snacks in order to avoid blood sugar crashes that would result in difficult-to-control cravings.  When traveling, I pack self-sufficient alternatives in my carry-on such as protein bars, beef jerky, string cheese, nuts (pistachios), dried berries (blueberries), granola, or peanut butter. If I’m in a hotel for more than a single nigh, I will make a point of stocking the mini bar with yogurt, cottage cheese, apples, and mineral water (ask for my tips on optimal eating).
  • Play Long: Too often I was coming home too tired to keep up with my kids, so I set a long-term goal of being healthy and full of energy. When facing short-term stress and temptation, I ask myself whether indulging it moves me closer or farther from my long-term goal. Studies have shown that forming what is referred to as an implementation intention (‘if I encounter situation X, then I will perform behavior Y’) increases your probability of carrying out your goals. While S.M.A.R.T. objective setting may work in your business, I learned the hard way that personal goal setting works a bit differently due to the inherent human capacity for self deception (see Tony Soprano tip below).
  • Scan Subjective Data: It’s not easy to “unlearn” patterns of stress eating, but it is possible, and it starts with an awareness of what’s happening. Through conscious attention, I’ve become more adept at spotting my triggers for and patterns of stress eating. Take a hunger reality check: Is your hunger physical or due to stress? If I ate just a few hours ago and don’t have a rumbling stomach, I’ll ask myself some questions about how I feel at that moment. Has there been a big event in my life or a relentless accumulation of smaller stresses? Am I bored or lonely? Am I craving specific comfort foods? (ask for my tips on stress versus physical hunger).
  • Head or Heart?  One form of stress eating stems from is sometimes called “head hunger”: an urge to eat stemming from intellectual sources such as stress, anger, frustration, an upcoming deadline, or being misunderstood. If the food you crave is chewy or crunchy, “something you smash your teeth down on,” you might be experiencing head hunger. Here are some highly textured foods that signal head hunger, according to one expert: Chewy cookies or bars, M&Ms, steak or chewy meats, granola, trail mix, fried foods, chips, nuts, popcorn, crackers, french fries, hot dogs, pizza, and chocolate. So-called “heart hunger” is a response to “empty” emotions, such as loneliness, depression, boredom, and the feeling that something is missing. If you seek comforting foods such as ice cream, pasta, cinnamon rolls, cheese, eggs, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, biscuits, cake (especially cheesecake), alcohol, candy, and other foods that hold a treasured place in your memory (say, Mom’s favorite recipe), you’re probably experiencing “heart hunger.” Here’s another clue: “If you are hungry and don’t know what you want, this is usually heart hunger,” another expert says; that phrase “I don’t know what I want” is the tip-off. That’s when you should ask yourself: “What am I missing?” NB, not everyone believes that emotional eating can be so easily categorized; for the record, I struggle with both head and heart hunger.
  • Take 5++: I used this technique to quit smoking years ago. When I get a food craving, I look at the clock and decide to wait five minutes before eating. If I make it through five minutes ok, I will challenge myself to wait another five minutes. Many times that pause allows me to reflect and understand the root cause of my craving. I also remind myself that through my past experience I know that giving in to the craving will not make me feel better; often I would feel worse after giving in. For me, remembering that stress eating is a dead end road sometimes provides me with the necessary motivation to overcome it. Take5++ works for short term cravings, but I also find that it provides a cumulative long term benefit. If I know that I am able to wait 15 minutes on average, I will start with 5 minutes, but then try to meet or exceed my previous record.
  • Spousal Stress: Working on global business development for a startup meant that I was on the road sometimes up to 21 days a month. This did not wear very well on my marriage. My wife and I tried marital counseling and saw improvements but then the stresses would re-accumulate eventually. As a last-ditch effort I did a 12-step program on relationships and personally grew a tremendous amount as a result, but my marriage did not survive. Today I am in a much healthier and stronger relationship with a smart independent woman who acts as a muse and provides me with tough love (ask me for Talya’s tips – a woman’s perspective on executive health).
  • “Get out of” Dodge: I notice that I can sometimes prevent my craving loop from cascading and amplifying by simply “leaving the scene”. This might mean going down the hall to talk to a colleague or going outside to walk around the block. If I am on a plane or waiting for a taxi, I will go through my playlist and play 2 favorite songs back-to-back. The key to the “getting out of” dodge is simply use some form of physical action to shift your mental attention from your craving. Like the “Take 5++” habit, this technique buys me enough time to be honest about the source of my cravings and thus avoid deceiving myself.
  • Cheat Day: This is a well known and effective bodybuilder’s trick and works to help prevent our leptin hormone from working against us. Although it sounds counter intuitive a weekly cheat meal can actually help optimize our body’s hormones to avoid stress eating triggers and prevent it from entering starvation mode. Instead of telling myself I can’t have a favorite food ever again (which is psychologically difficult), I tell myself I will indulge myself later on my weekly Cheat Day. Several of my clients who are overachievers experienced weight-loss plateaus but went on to break through after using the Cheat Day strategy.
  • Day Trade: Sometime my kids want to go for ice cream when it’s not my Cheat Day. What to do then? In these cases, I will indulge both them and myself, but then I cut back the corresponding number of calories from my next meal. Both of these methods form part of my Play Long goal for my kids (see above). A meta variation of the Day Trade and Cheat Day habits can be helpful to cope with large holiday meals: New Years Eve, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are de facto Cheat Days for me, and I program my non-holiday eating schedule accordingly.
  • Crash: When you don’t get the sleep your body needs, your ghrelin levels increase, stimulating your appetite so that you want more food than your body actually requires, and your leptin levels decrease, with the result that you don’t feel satisfied and want to continue eating. For optimum health and performance and reduced stress eating, we should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep regularly. Also try a 20-minute power nap at around 3-4pm. Studies show that short term sleep deprivation can cause a weight gain of 2 lbs in 5 days rising to 11 lbs on a longer term basis (ask for my tips on optimal sleep).
  • Laugh at Boredom: I found that some of my overeating was caused by the stress of boredom, particularly when traveling alone. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter can activate and relieve your stress response among other benefits. I make a point of having a couple of standup comedies stored on my mobile devices (Louis CK if you are curious). It’s a great way to pass the time, especially on the plane. When driving, I prefer to listen to a comedy channel via streaming audio. I find short form content (highlight reels) work best for short commutes or taxi rides.
  • When in Rome: In new cities, I make a point of asking the hotel desk or concierge for a recommended route and try to do at least 15 minutes’ walking before retiring for the night. Alternatively for my early morning walk or run, I may grab a cab to take me to a famous local landmark and do my exercise there. Great sources of local routes are mapmyrun.com or meetup.com. For me this works to reduce hunger by re-oxygenating my blood and by relieving tensions caused from being cramped in an airplane seat.
  • Lift and HIIT: Regular exercise to decrease the usual amount of cortisol in your bloodstream, leading to a reduction in symptoms of stress (Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice). This can be challenging while traveling when time is at a premium and local gym equipment availability varies widely. Because of lack of time and equipment, I developed an equipment-free system that helps me to get more than adequate exercise in just two 12 minute sessions per week. The best part is, I look and feel better using my new system than when I was training 15+ hours a week for a triathlon (ask for my tips on optimal exercise).
  • Leverage Bodyweight: Exercising when traveling can be a challenge. Every hotel seems to have different equipment and hours of availability. In Barcelona the treadmill interfaces are written in Spanish and I never could decode the one in Denmark. So I adopted three simple but challenging bodyweight strength and cardio workouts (Lift Heavy Things, High Intensity Interval Training, and the Firefighter Workout).  I also use this if my kids are sick at home and I can’t get out for a run or to the gym. If my weight is running a bit high, I tell myself it’s my secret advantage to a better bodyweight workout.
  • Gamify Travel Food: If you scan your food environment, you will notice that stress foods are seemingly available from a machine in every airport or hotel, but quality foods take scouting and effort to procure; this is doubly true when traveling. So I make it a game to beat “the system”. For fun and challenge, I once traveled from Germany via Denmark to Sweden and submitted a zero food expense report by foraging free or fresh food (ask for my tips on travel eating).
  • 21-Day Challenge: One of the most important health principles I’ve uncovered is the precise number of days it takes to reprogram your genes and jumpstart new health and lifestyle habits. It turns out that 21 days of dedicated commitment is the optimal amount of time to implement and verify new eating and fitness strategies. Remember that your current situation was years in the making. Taking 3 weeks to u-turn onto a better path is a small investment with potential lifelong dividends.

There are 18 more countermeasures you can take against stress eating. You can also read my motivation and health psychology tips or the most simple supplement strategy ever.

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