Trick mind out of stress eating

Every day at 4 p.m, a voice pops into your head and lists the contents of the vending machine down the hall. Fritos. This has been a really stressful week, the voice whispers, Fritos will help. In the middle row are salt and vinegar potato chips. You ate a healthy lunch; one bag is okay. And down near the bottom, there's that pack of chocolate-chip cookies. You can start getting skinny tomorrow. What's one more day?

Some afternoons, you find these mind games perfectly convincing.

Using rationalizations to legitimize less-than-healthy eating is very common, and often accompanies strict diets and zero-tolerance approaches to foods like sweets. When eating becomes an all-or-nothing scenario -- you're either a "good eater" (celery and beans) or a "bad eater" (ice cream and pizza) -- anytime you want to indulge, you have to come up with an excuse.

But this pattern can sabotage our healthy eating efforts and weight control efforts. 

Here are  six common scenarios which will help you to work with your body and your emotions instead of cajoling yourself into behavior that undermines your health.

I Deserve This

Scenario: You went to the gym, ate a salad for lunch, and didn't lose your temper when your coworker dismissed your ideas. Now it's dinnertime, and you want a big brownie for dessert. You earned it, you tell yourself.

Solution: Distinguish between enjoying a treat and rewarding yourself. Often when people use food as a reward, they also use it as a punishment. It's a potentially harmful dynamic.

To break the pattern, write a list of nonfood rewards. Consider the tangibles, like a new pair of earrings, as well as simple pleasures, like giving yourself permission to take a break.

When you have a treat, try not to link it to "good" or "bad" behavior. That means acknowledging that sometimes you just want a particular food (say, a Fudgsicle), no justification needed.

I'm Upset

Scenario: It's 10 p.m., and this is the first moment of downtime you've had all day. Flooded by stress and fatigue, you search for comfort in a huge bowl of chocolate ice cream.

Solution: Remember that emotional eating does not have to be emotional overeating.

To break this pattern, accept that sometimes you're going to eat to cope with your emotions. But when you do, make self-care your first course. Relax as much as you can before you start eating. Take a few quiet moments to breathe deeply. Light a candle or put on some nice music. By taking the edge off your feelings, you may not need as much food to feel better: a single cookie, for instance, instead of the whole box.

I'm too busy to eat well.

Scenario: You're juggling extra hours at work and an ailing parent. You know you should eat well, but if you add one more thing to your "should" list, the balancing act might collapse.

Solution: Take small steps that don't require much thought or effort. When you're overwhelmed by life, piling on detailed diet requirements makes things even more complicated. Change doesn't have to be drastic. Put an extra apple in your bag, for instance, so you have a healthy snack at the ready. Or resolve to eat a couple fewer bites at every meal. You'll find that better eating comes naturally -- and it won't feel like another thing on your to-do list.

I Paid for It

Scenario: You're at an all-you-can-eat buffet. You tell yourself it would be a waste not to eat as much as possible.

Solution: Think of your budget in terms of calories rather than cash. All-inclusive cruises and buffets prove especially challenging for some people. Try to focus more on the calories than on the cash. The same principle goes for free food that comes your way, such as pizza left over from the meeting at work or bagels at the school function.

It's a Special Occasion.

ScenarioIt's yet another coworker's birthday, so for the third time this week, everyone's standing around the office eating cake. Since it's a celebration, you let yourself have a piece.

Solution: Distinguish between routine celebrations and truly special occasions. The latter occur infrequently and involve a food or a moment set apart from your routine -- a monthly dinner date with your best friend, perhaps, or Christmas, when your mom bakes amazing gingerbread cookies.

When you're tempted to indulge at the next office party or happy hour, remind yourself that you're not compelled to partake at every gathering. When the genuinely significant days come up, plan for them; eat lightly before and after, for instance.

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