13 Ways to Prevent Stress Eating When You’re Stuck at Home
Written by Jillian Kubala, MS, RD on March 27, 2020
Though self-isolating is the best way to protect against COVID-19, being stuck at home can lead to some unhealthy behaviors, including overeating due to stress and boredom.
While taking comfort in food during times of stress is a normal reaction, overeating regularly can negatively affect your health and increase your stress and anxiety levels.
Here are 13 ways to prevent stress eating when you’re stuck at home.
An important note
It’s important to differentiate stress eating from disordered eating. If you feel that you have disordered eating tendencies, these tips are not appropriate for your needs.
For information on eating disorder treatment and additional support, contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline.
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One of the most helpful ways to prevent overeating is to understand why it’s happening in the first place. There are many reasons why you may be compelled to overeat, including being stressed out or bored.
If you find yourself eating too frequently or eating too much in one sitting, take a minute and check in with yourself. First, it’s important to determine whether you’re eating because you’re hungry and need nourishment, or whether there’s another reason.
Before you eat, pay special attention to how you’re feeling, such as stressed, bored, lonely, or anxious. Simply pausing and evaluating the situation can help you understand what compels you to overeat and may help prevent overeating in the future.
That said, combating overeating is rarely easy, and you may have to seek professional help, especially if it’s a common occurrence or you eat to the point of discomfort and experience feelings of shame or guilt afterward. These may be signs of disordered eating (1Trusted Source).
Though having a jar of cookies or bowl of colorful candy on the counter may add to the visual appeal of your kitchen, this practice may lead to overeating.
Having tempting foods within eyesight can lead to frequent snacking and overeating, even when you aren’t hungry.
Research has shown that visual exposure to high calorie foods stimulates the striatum, a part of your brain that modulates impulse control, which may lead to increased cravings and overeating (2Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source).
For this reason, it’s best to keep particularly tempting foods, including sugary baked goods, candy, chips, and cookies, out of sight, such as in a pantry or cupboard.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a tasty treat occasionally, even when you’re not necessarily hungry. However, overindulging too often can harm both your physical and mental health (5Trusted Source).
You shouldn’t change your normal eating schedule just because you’re stuck at home. If you’re used to having three meals a day, try to continue that schedule while you’re working from home. The same goes for if you typically consume only two meals and a snack.
Though it’s easy to stray from your normal dietary pattern when your day-to-day schedule gets disrupted, it’s important to maintain some semblance of normalcy when it comes to eating.
You may find yourself adapting your eating pattern to accommodate your new normal, and that’s OK. Just try to maintain a regular eating pattern based on your individual needs and your preferred eating times.
If you’re really thrown off and find yourself constantly snacking, try making a schedule that includes at least two solid meals per day and following it until you feel that you have become comfortably consistent with your eating habits.
One of the most important nutrition rules to follow to prevent overeating is to not deprive your body of food. Oftentimes, being overly restrictive with food intake or consuming too few calories can lead to binging on high calorie foods and overeating (6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source).
It’s never a good idea to follow a highly restrictive diet or deprive yourself of food, especially during stressful times.
Research has shown that restrictive dieting is not only ineffective for long-term weight loss but also can harm your physical and mental health and increase your stress levels (9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source).
Some good things come along with being stuck at home. Not having the option to eat out at restaurants makes you cook more meals yourself, which has been shown to improve overall health.
For example, a study in 11,396 people found that eating home-cooked meals more frequently was associated with a greater intake of fruits and vegetables.
Plus, it found that people who ate home-cooked meals more than 5 times per week were 28% less likely to be overweight and 24% less likely to have excess body fat, compared with those who ate home-cooked meals less than 3 times per week (12Trusted Source).
Being stuck at home gives you more time to focus on healthy habits, including drinking enough fluids. Maintaining proper hydration is important for overall health and may help you prevent overeating related to stress.
In fact, research has found an association between chronic dehydration and an elevated risk of obesity. Plus, being dehydrated can lead to alterations in mood, attention, and energy levels, which can also affect your eating habits (14Trusted Source, 15Trusted Source).
To combat dehydration, add a few slices of fresh fruit to your water to boost its flavor, which may help you drink more water throughout the day without adding a significant amount of sugar or number of calories to your diet.
Being stuck at home can take a serious toll on your activity levels, leading to boredom, stress, and increased snacking frequency. To combat this, make some time for daily physical activity.
If you’re feeling lost due to the closing of your favorite gym or workout studio, try something new like a home workout on YouTube, taking a hike in nature, or simply walking or jogging around your neighborhood.
Research has shown that physical activity can boost mood and reduce stress, which may reduce your chances of stress eating (16Trusted Source).
When you suddenly find yourself with a lot of extra free time, boredom can quickly set in once you have tackled your to-do list for the day.
However, boredom can be prevented by making good use of your spare time. Everyone has hobbies that they have always wanted to try or projects that have been put off due to busy schedules.
Now is the perfect time to learn a new skill, tackle a home improvement project, organize your living spaces, take an educational course, or start a new hobby.
Learning something new or starting a project can not only prevent boredom but also likely make you feel more accomplished and less stressed.
Modern-day life is full of distractions. From smartphones to televisions to social media, you’re surrounded by technology meant to distract you from your daily life.
Though catching up on a favorite TV show can help take your mind off of stressful events, it’s important to minimize distractions when eating a meal or snack, especially if you find yourself frequently overeating.
If you’re used to dining while parked in front of your television, smartphone, or computer, try eating in a less distracting environment. Attempt to concentrate only on your food, paying special attention to feelings of hunger and fullness.
Being more present while you eat may help prevent overeating and can help you become more aware of your eating patterns and food intake (17Trusted Source).
It’s common for people to snack on foods directly from the containers in which they were sold, which may lead to overeating.
For example, grabbing a pint of ice cream from the freezer and eating directly from the container rather than doling out a single portion in a dish may cause you to eat more than you intended (18Trusted Source).
To combat this, practice portion control by serving yourself a single portion of food rather than eating out of larger containers.
Stocking your kitchen with filling, nutrient-dense foods can not only help improve your overall health but also combat the tendency to stress eat highly palatable foods.
For example, filling your fridge and pantry with foods that can help fill you up in a healthful way — rather than foods rich in empty calories like candy, chips, and soda — is a smart way to prevent the chances of noshing on unhealthy choices.
Filling foods are ones that are high in protein, fiber, and healthy fats. Nuts, seeds, avocados, beans, and eggs are just some examples of nutritious, satisfying choices that can help fill you up and prevent overeating (19Trusted Source).
While a glass of wine or tasty cocktail can be a relaxing way to unwind, keep in mind that alcohol lowers your inhibitions, increases appetite, and may increase the chances of overeating (20Trusted Source).
Plus, drinking too much alcohol harms your health in a number of ways and can lead to dependence issues (21Trusted Source).
Try to stay within the guidelines set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which suggests that alcoholic beverages be limited to one drink per day or less for women and two or fewer drinks per day for men (22Trusted Source).
During stressful times, it’s more important than ever to keep your overall health in mind. Eating nutritious foods is just one part of keeping yourself healthy and happy.
Practicing self-compassion and doing the best that you can given the current circumstances is what’s most important.
This is not the time to restrict, overexercise, try a fad diet, compare yourself to others, or focus on weaknesses. If you’re struggling with insecurities, body image issues, or anxiety, use this time to foster a new, healthy relationship with your mind and body.
Given the current circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, you may find yourself stuck at home and feeling stressed and bored, which may increase your chances of overeating.
While indulging in comfort foods occasionally, especially during times of stress, is completely normal, overeating regularly can take a toll on your physical and mental health.
The evidence-based tips above may help you control stress eating and improve many other aspects of your health as well.