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Stress eating comfort foods? Break your unhealthy food habits with these simple tips

Stress eating unhealthy comfort foods Break your bad food habits with these simple tips MAIN

Find yourself stress eating or continually reaching for comfort foods? If you’re looking to break your unhealthy eating habits, these expert-approved tips should help 

Food, food, food; it’s everywhere we turn.

And although the majority of us know what’s healthy and what’s not, it can be very easy to fall into the habit of eating too much unhealthy grub.

In fact, research by wellbeing brand Healthspan has found that comfort eating is the nation’s most common bad habit, with 27 per cent of those admitting that food soothes them when they’re feeling anxious, stressed or sad.

Other discovered food-related bad habits were:

  • eating fast food,
  • eating too much chocolate,
  • eating too many crisps,
  • drinking too much fizzy pop.

Annoyingly, these unhealthy habits can get in the way of our health and fitness goals. Perhaps you want to lose weight, but a 3pm chocolate bar always seems to mess with your progress?

Or maybe, an unhealthy habit triggers you into a spiral of other habits that are playing havoc with your mental health.

Comfort and stress eating as a habit…

‘A habit can be any sort of behaviour that we repeat on a regular basis, often automatically without awareness of the cognitive processes going on in the background which lead to the behaviour,’ explains Dr Meg Arroll, a psychologist on behalf of Healthspan.

She explains that food can easily be associated with comfort, which is why unhealthy food habits are so common.

food can easily be associated with comfort

‘High fat and sugar treats trigger our brain’s reward centre and comfort foods such as chocolate boost feel-good neurotransmitters, offering an antidepressant effect’.

It’s no surprise then that more than a third of people questioned say they overeat when they’re feeling bored, with another 29 per cent turning to food during stressful times.

But, there is good news! Unhealthy food habits can be replaced with healthier food habits. It does take perseverance however, as research shows it can take an average of 66 days to change a habit.

woman stress eating unhealthy food habits

What triggers an unhealthy food habit?

Every day, our brain takes on so much information and has to make endless decisions. So, to help save time, our brains create habits as shortcuts.

‘We make around 200 behavioural decisions around food and eating each day but most of these will be driven by our habits and outside of our conscious awareness,’ explains Dr Meg.

‘We’d easily become overloaded and crash if we had to focus on each and every one of these decisions as we only have a finite amount of cognitive capacity’.

Therefore, our habits allow us to concentrate this capacity on more difficult and complex decision-making processes, to allow us to function in our ever-increasingly complex world.

We make around 200 behavioural decisions around food and eating each day

With many of us wanting to stick to various food, diet and weight loss goals, Dr Meg says that it’s important for changes to be sustainable, in order for any bad habits to be removed.

‘What we know from research and my own Shrinkology practice is that when a diet or eating plan is overly restrictive, it’s less likely to be maintained long-term.’ adds Dr Meg.

‘When we simply exclude or demonise foods, we can become preoccupied with them. Therefore, a diet plan that has some flexibility is much more likely to be successful and will also reduce boredom’.

This in turn means bad habits aren’t so hard to change.

woman stress eating bad food

How to break an unhealthy food habit…

Don’t assume that your bad habit is here for life; Dr Meg says that it’s useful to know of our ‘habit loop’, which is the series of events surrounding a habit.

Think of ABCs being ‘activating event’, ‘behaviour’ and ‘consequence’.

‘An activating event (cues) could be a particularly boring task at work, resulting in an associated behaviour of mindless eating which has the consequence of relieving the unpleasant sensation of boredom (reward),’ describes Dr Meg.

‘Once we know both the activating events and consequences surrounding the habit we want to change, we can replace the unwanted behaviour with something else’.

Dr Meg suggests the following:

  • a short walk,
  • breaking down the work task in a more manageable way,
  • or looking at deeper psychological reasons why some aspects of work seem so unappealing.

‘This method allows long-term habit change as we can’t always control the cues around us, but we can control the way we respond to them’, adds Dr Meg.

healthy or unhealthy option stress eating comfort foods

Anchoring is another useful technique for habits

‘An anchor is helpful in breaking habits as we can use existing behaviours to attach (anchor) a new habit too. These act as useful reminders throughout the day,” says Dr Meg.

Dr Meg adds that social support is also important when it comes to maintaining good health habits.

When it comes to taking supplements as a way to support your diet, often people find it hard to get into the habit of taking them.

But if the habit of taking a supplement was anchored to an action that is already a habit, such as making your morning tea, then it soon becomes part of your routine, as the other habit acts as a cue for the new habit.

the other habit acts as a cue for the new habit

‘WFH means we’ve all got into habits that aren’t good for us such as eating at our desks and this is the least mindful way to eat and in times of stress this is also going to encourage indigestion,’ says Rob Hobson a Registered Nutritionist who also works with Healthspan.

‘Step away even if it’s for ten minutes, stretch, move then sit and eat but don’t sit hunched up.  All that aside, do you know the germs that reside on your keyboard?

‘Choose someone from each area of your life – work, family, friends – to be your team members and let them know your goals. Many clients I work with set-up WhatsApp groups to support one another and check-in each week’.

Dealing with off days..

It’s natural to slip up and revert back to your bad habit, however, Dr Meg explains that a habit change should be seen as a terrain with ‘dips and slips’ rather than a linear curve.

‘We all ‘fall off the wagon’ and this is a helpful part of the process as it allows us to reflect, see what was working and what wasn’t so much, tweak your plan and move forward.

‘Treat yourself with the care and compassion you would a friend when lapses occur – and know these are a core part of the process’.

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