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5 Ways to Calm Anxiety without Food

Katie Horrell, MS, RDN

Stress can have physical causes, like not getting enough sleep or being in pain. Other times it can have an emotional cause like financial troubles or illness in a loved one. Sometimes you may have a hard time figuring out why you are stressed. 

There are certain times when stress is inevitable. When we face stressors that cause us anxiety, we often turn to food to cope with these tough emotions. This can go against the healthy habits we’ve built throughout the year. 

Anxiety can sneak up on you, and you may not always be aware of it at any given moment. If you struggle with stress eating, it’s a lot more manageable once you can recognize the symptoms of your anxiety and get familiar with your triggers. 

The symptoms most associated with anxiety are easy to pinpoint – think elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, restlessness, and butterflies in the stomach. Subtler symptoms, like anger, muscle tension, excess sweating, and focus and memory issues may be a little harder to recognize. 

Some of the side effects of anxiety come with their own consequences. Compulsive behaviors like binge eating can lead to weight gain.

Common triggers for anxiety

Major life changes, whether or not they are welcome, can trigger uncertainty and anxiety. Landing a new job or going through a breakup can be equally stressful, and you may feel the need to indulge to help you cope with the stress.

Environmental triggers are another major factor in anxiety. When you feel anxious, take a moment to assess your surroundings. You may be stressed out if the lighting is too bright or too dim, if there is excess noise and commotion, or if everything is a mess. 

Social events, especially with a lot of strangers, are also a common cause of anxiety. If you find yourself hanging out by the food station at parties, it may be that your stress (rather than your appetite) is running high. 

While you can always leave a party or clean up your house when you’re feeling anxious, a lot of the stressors that trigger our anxiety are out of our control. Acute stress affects our judgment and it can last for as long as a month after the event that it causes, which can throw a wrench in your weight loss goals. Chronic stress has been linked to heart disease and obesity, and people can struggle with it for years. Thankfully, there ARE strategies that we can utilize to cope with short term or long term stress and anxiety while you uphold our health goals. Let’s dive into what they might look like!

How to prevent stress eating

1. Occupy your mind

For many of us, as soon as the feeling of anxiety or worry hits, we get trapped in negative thought patterns. Our minds race, and we can’t stop thinking about whatever it is that’s stressing us out. In moments like these, sometimes the best solution is to take a break from yourself and find something more positive to listen to. 

One great way to help racing thoughts is to replace that inner voice with your favorite podcast, music, or simply having a conversation with a friend or family member.  It’s hard to overthink when we have something else to fill in that space!

2. Practice guided yoga or meditation

Yoga and meditation can be hard for people dealing with anxiety because we have a tendency to think about the process and avoid living in the moment. This can negate the calming effects that we hear so much about!  

If you’ve never done yoga, it’s so much better to learn sequences from an instructor rather than trying to follow a video. It’s much easier for them to spot poor form and coach you through how to fix it, and some of them may be able to offer modifications to poses that you have difficulty with. Going to a class can also motivate you to finish, and after a few sessions the benefits you see will keep you motivated.

Not only can yoga help with anxiety, but it can also build muscle mass, which will help you burn calories more efficiently and help with weight loss goals. On top of that, there is evidence that people who practice are more likely to eat mindfully.

Try following along with guided meditations. It goes hand in hand with tip number 1 – if you have a calm voice guiding you through it, you don’t have to “fight” your own thoughts in order to focus. Practicing mindfulness mediation trains your brain to stay in the present, and several studies have suggested that practicing meditation can lower the cortisol levels (aka the stress hormone) in your blood. Lowering your stress levels can treat the root cause of your overeating, and make it much easier to stick with healthy habits.

3. Repeat a Mantra

Mantras can be whatever you want them to be. In a nutshell, you want to think of a phrase or even a word that centers you and brings you back to the present moment. Words have power, and you can use them to reframe your mind and inform your decisions. 

A mantra can also help you keep your focus on your goals so you can take appropriate actions to help you reach them every day. Think of the actions you can take in the present that will help you reach your goals, like choosing a healthy snack over junk food.

When you are focused on a long term goal, like losing weight and feeling healthy, it’s much easier to make rational choices. If you’re only focused on a short term goal, like satisfying a craving, you’re more likely to make an irrational choice, like eating when you aren’t feeling hungry. 

Need a few examples before you come up with your own? Try: “I am in charge of fueling my body mindfully” or “Food is fuel!”

4. Journal about your thoughts & feelings

Sometimes replacing one thought with another is helpful. Other times, we really need to vent and truly get to the bottom of what is bothering us. This is when journaling becomes our best friend! Let it all out on paper, in a word document, or an online journal! You’ll be amazed at what you uncover when you take the time to write it out. 

Anxiety is unpleasant, and you may have become a master at hiding uncomfortable emotions you don’t want to face. If you take the time to put words to all of your feelings, it gives you the chance to finally process them.

It also gives you the opportunity to brainstorm about the things that are causing you stress and get to the bottom of problems that feel out of your control. Sometimes, taking the time to vent in a safe, judgment-free space can help you identify irrational thought patterns and let you see yourself from a new, healthier perspective.

5. Indulge mindfully!

How often do you eat a meal without sitting? If you don’t take the time to sit down and enjoy your food – even if it’s a healthy snack – your brain may not process how much you’ve consumed. No matter what you’re eating, you should portion out your food, sit down, and eat mindfully. 

One way to practice mindful eating is to keep a food diary. Take the time to write what you ate, how much, and what time you ate it. You can also make a note of how you were feeling when you ate, and how hungry you are. Not only will this practice help you stay aware of how much you’re eating throughout the day, but it can also help you uncover the connections between the food you eat and your mood. With a little more self-awareness, it’s much easier to keep your emotional eating in check.

If you are craving something to eat and there’s nothing around but junk food, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Keep plenty of healthy choices available, and limit the number of tempting foods you have in the house at any given time. 

Sooner or later, treats are bound to make their way onto your plate. When they do, savor every bite! If you choose to indulge but shame yourself the whole way through, little enjoyment comes out of that experience. We tend to eat less and have more positive experiences with food when we do so in a mindful way, so enjoy your dessert!