It’s the end of a long day. After taking care of a family member, you’re exhausted. You’d love to hang out with a friend, but you didn’t make a date and it’s unlikely anyone would be available on such short notice. You start feeling not only tired, but a bit low. Without thinking, you wander into the kitchen, where you grab some Fritos and start munching while checking Facebook. A few minutes later, you look up and realize the bag is empty.
Sound familiar? As a caregiver, you have a greater chance of eating not out of physical hunger, but stress. A 2006 study showed that 63% of caregivers reported having worse eating habits than non-caregivers—which isn’t surprising, because snacking and overeating are both a cause and a result of stress.
When the body is under stress, studies show it produces a high level of cortisol, which triggers intense cravings, not for green salads or lentil soup, but for pretzels, ice cream or chocolate chip cookies—foods that elicit a quick rush of energy. Eating too many of these sweet or salty foods can lead not only to weight gain, but to high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
Yet, hope is not lost. You can manage your stress eating in spite of your caregiving role. Try these 14 suggestions:
1. Keep an eating notebook – Note what you eat, how much, when and what happened right before you ate. This will help you notice patterns in your eating and identify your triggers, such as anxiety, boredom or an argument with a loved one. Be particularly aware when you’re experiencing any part of what 12-step support groups call HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.
2. Create a list of options – For example, you might go outside for a few minutes, call a friend, have a shower, read, rest, enjoy solo sex or pour yourself a glass of water with lemon.
3. Decide if you’re an abstainer or a moderator – An abstainer prefers a flat “just say no” to certain foods, whereas a moderator prefers everything in small amounts. If you’re a moderator and you forbid yourself a certain food, you may rebel. If you’re an abstainer trying to be moderate, you may spend a lot of energy negotiating with yourself about how much to eat.
4. Turn to a trusted friend or family member – Talk about your feelings, or “what’s eating you,” rather than eating.
5. Get regular physical activity – Try walking, riding a bike or yoga, all of which help to reduce stress. If you can exercise outside, even better.
6. Make junk food inconvenient – If you decide to keep junk food in the house, make it hard to reach, like down in the basement or on a high shelf. Requiring extra steps makes eating much more of a hassle, so you’re less likely to go to the trouble.
7. Keep healthy foods nearby – Have a bowl of fruit on your kitchen counter and pre-cut vegetables in the fridge.
8. Remove distractions – Try to eat mindfully, paying attention to the flavors and textures of the food you’re eating, rather than watching TV, reading or scanning your phone. Sit down at a table. Set the table with a placemat and put your food on a plate or in a bowl, even if you’re munching on chips. Eating mindlessly can cause you to overeat.
9. Slow down – You may have developed the habit of eating fast. Some experts recommend the 20-20-20 rule: Chew your food for 20 seconds, put your fork down for 20 seconds between mouthfuls and take 20 minutes to eat your meal. If you eat with someone who consumes food more slowly than you, eat at their pace, not your own.
10. Separate yourself from cravings – When you feel a craving coming on, leave the room where the food is. The distance will create a buffer that will help to moderate the intense, uncontrollable urge to eat. It can also give you a chance to reflect on what caused the craving.
11. Delay eating – Tell yourself, “I have full permission to eat this, but first I’m going to hold off for five minutes.” Usually the urge will fade, but if it doesn’t, don’t deny yourself the food. You need to keep your promise, so that you maintain trust in yourself.
12. Create an accountability partner – Overeating can feel very isolating at times, and a partner can help you feel less alone. One method is to report at the end of the day how you did. If, for example, you’re trying to cut back on cookies, you could send a text or email, saying, “I had two today.” Your partner may also have a habit they’re working on, so it can be a two-way street. It’s best not to comment on the report. Your partner is simply a receptacle for the facts—an ally helping to keep you accountable.
13. Enjoy your food – We’re wired to enjoy food, so give yourself permission to enjoy it—even if it’s junk food. Whatever you’re eating, healthy or otherwise, you have the right to take pleasure in food!
14. Be kind to yourself – If you have a long history of stress eating, it will probably take time to change, and you may have an occasional relapse. Rather than judging yourself, try to accept it and reflect on it to help you avoid doing it again. It’s what you do after the relapse that matters most. Feeling guilty, a common reaction to overeating in our culture, may only keep the cycle going. So, be patient and forgiving with yourself.
As a caregiver, take your stress level very seriously because it not only has a negative impact on you but also on your family member. How you eat may indeed be your first signal of the degree of stress you’re under. Taking the steps described above will help you take better care of both your family member and yourself.