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Stress Eating - A Case Study, Samantha

by Judy Palken MNS, RD, LDN  

Do you overeat because you are stressed, disappointed, or unhappy?  This kind of eating can feel good in the very short-term, but the long-term consequences can be disastrous for your health.  

You might be able to relate to Samantha's story.  

Samantha eats a LOT every evening after dinner.  Here is what happens - after work, she comes home from a long hard day (full of its own challenges), and prepares dinner for her 2 children and her husband.   The children are at the table and then off and running almost before she sits down - they are teenagers, and have busy lives - homework, friends, their phones!  

Her husband is often late - so Samantha sits and eats mostly alone.  She’s tired, and she is resenting that she has done the work to get the dinner on the table, not easy after a long day of work, and no one is there to join her for more than 2-3 minutes.  She eats but doesn't enjoy it - she mainly tastes her bitterness.      

Later, she feels a lack - she wants to enjoy food!  She gets out the treats…  and she eats.  She feels a stubborn refusal to dish out a serving of one of these foods - rather, she takes a container or two and parks in front of the TV, feeling that she can relax for the first time all day.  She eats until she feels better.  By the time she stops, she will have eaten a bag of chips or much of a carton of ice cream, or some of both.     

Feeling better is short-lived - the next morning, she reflects back on what she ate, and groans, and feels hopeless.  She says, I know I have to do better - I’m 40 pounds overweight, my cholesterol is high, and I’m scared - there is diabetes in my family.  I know I should eat less, or not at all, at night - but I can't seem to stop myself.  

A plan for Samantha - 

First, some serious self-reflection - why the need to overfeed herself this way?  Clearly something is lacking, and it  might be starting at dinner.  She wants some company and time with her family, and a dollop of appreciation!  Her resentment is leading to stress and an emptiness that needs to be filled, and she is using processed, high sugar-salt-fat foods to fill the void.  

So, some suggestions for Samantha:  

Number 1 - talk to the children - set some rules - Kids, this is how it is going to be - we will help each other get the dinner on the table, we will eat together for at least 15 minutes, and we will clear up together.  If we need to, we will set a timer for those 15 minutes!     

Number 2 - She will focus her attention on the food on her dinner plate.  She will make a point of noticing how each food looks, smells, and tastes, and she will try to savor it.  She will eat slowly, and stop often.  She will put down her fork, and talk to her children.  

Number 3 - If she wants a snack or dessert later, she will honor that feeling, and decide upon one food item.  She will dish out one serving, according to the package serving size information, and put the container away before she starts to eat.  She will notice and appreciate the snack, and pay attention to all of its qualities.  Then she will tell herself - thank you,and that is enough.  

Yes, there are other actions that Samantha can take - you may be thinking of some of them yourself!  In the next installment, we will talk about some other strategies for her, after she tries these.  

Often it is good to try just a couple of changes at a time, rather than getting overwhelmed by trying to change everything all at once.  After we master our first steps, we can move on and set new goals.  

If you think that you are eating poorly due to stress or some other negative emotion, think about ways in which you can handle the situation besides turning to food.  Remember, in the long run stress-eating will make you feel worse.  Good health involves taking care of ourselves, and we cannot do that if we are hiding what hurts beneath piles of food.  If the problem is too hard to fix on your own, you might want to enlist the help of a registered dietitian or a therapist - both can help you to sort out your feelings, and the dietitian can help you to make better food choices and to change  your eating behaviors.  

Remember, food should always be enjoyed, and treats are certainly a part of that.  But you should control the treats - don't let them control you!