Updated: Aug 23
Have you ever come home stressed from work and thrown all self-control out the window, headed to your local chip shop, and bought a salty, fatty carb fix? Or have you suffered the anxiety of getting an assignment done in a tight time frame and, to ease your suffering, eaten a half (or whole) tub of ice cream?
Whether we are bored, depressed, stressed, or agitated, a soothing response to these emotions is to eat food, and to add the cherry on top of this emotional sundae, food which is far from healthy.
A bag of lollies, cake, ice cream, chips, burgers, donuts, half a block of cheese. Salty, fried, sugary, empty calories! I am sorry if I have just triggered your inner will to undo anything healthy you have achieved today, but there is a reason why we do this to ourselves.
From an evolutionary view, our bodies are designed to fuel up on energy to manage times of famine and stress. Our body wants to put on weight because, in theory, it doesn’t know when we will experience our next hardship. We want energy fast, so, when we can find high-energy food, we prefer these to low-energy kinds. Therefore, in times of stress you naturally want to carb load as your body can’t distinguish the stress from a predator chasing you and that overdue task.
From a phycological point of view, we can often find ourselves getting into this endless loop of feeling bad emotionally, eating unhealthy food, and then feeling bad physically, and on the cycle goes. Additionally, we unconsciously condition ourselves to self-sooth with foods which are comforting, such as the foods we eat during times of celebration and fun.
Eating highly refined food does not only make us gain weight, but it can also affect our gut health. We are beginning to understand the important link between the gut and brain and keeping our digestive system and gut bacteria happy seems to have an impact on our mood and mind. Therefore, it is vital during times of stress to eat nutritiously, lots of whole foods high in fibre and other micronutrients, as it can help build up our body to face the hard times.
So, how do we rewire our unconscious desires?
1. Eliminate temptation
The first step is to prohibit the undesirable food from making it into your house. I know this one seems like a no brainer but there is nothing easier than adding several impulse buys to your cart as you meander through the isles. To overcome this, bring a set shopping list with you to the supermarket and only walk down the isles that are absolutely necessary, forgoing those tempting snack isles.
Another obvious tip, don’t go shopping hungry! This will prevent you from adding that half-priced chocolate bar at the counter which your low blood sugar, having hijacked your brain, will demand you need.
If stopping by the take-away or drive through on your way home is an issue, as you are indriving, have a mental think through the ingredients in your fridge, and how desperately you need to cook that packet of mince and zucchinis before they go bad. Think about the savings you will make by preventing wasted groceries, while forgoing that $10 to $20 impulse meal.
These affirmations over time can help curb impulses with more logical decisions. Build your will power muscle, the more you resist over time, the more you will condition yourself to learn that you are in control and do not need that unhealthy hit.
2. Be prepared
Often when we wander to the cupboards in search of relief, we want to just grab something and go. The healthier items may need a bit more effort to make into something appealing, and you might lack the motivation to do that extra work.
Things like veggies and fruit can be pre-prepared when you’re in a more motivated mood. On a good day, cut up a bulk supply of veggie sticks and fruit to keep in the fridge in air-tight containers for a time when you need something to sooth your nerves quick. Just pull out a box and dip in some hummus!
Other quick nutritious snack options to consider are tubs of low-fat natural yoghurt, a glass of low-fat milk, unsalted nuts (just a handful, don’t bring the bag with you), cherry tomatoes, sliced low-fat cheese on wholegrain biscuits, wholegrain toast with peanut butter, to name a few.
Focusing on snack size portions of these nutritious foods will help nourish your gut, curb hunger, and leave you feeling like you have made progress in taking care of yourself.
There are ways you can ease yourself into making healthier choices. The key is to slowly nudge your cravings in the right direction without causing too much panic. One method is to simply reduce your portion size. Try a smaller bowl and take a smaller helping. You can also leave the packet in the kitchen as the effort of having to go back into the kitchen for more can be discouraging enough to stay put. This will help cut down calories and regret.
Another helpful method is to trick yourself into a healthier alternative. If you are feeling like that chocolate bar, try having a chocolate oat cookie. You still get the chocolate sweet hit, but with a bit more nutrition and less empty calories. Over time you should hopefully become more satisfied with these alternatives and your moods will be satiated.
4. Forgive yourself
For those times when you have given into temptation, when nothing else will quell your inner feelings of rage and despair, remember you are only human. Rather than beat yourself up about it after the indulgence, which can cause more emotional distress and low self-esteem, accept that you enjoyed the moment you had with the chocolate bar and it was ultimately worth it.