It's natural to want to eat more when we’re bored or stressed but feeling guilty about it won’t help, says dietitian Sophie Medlin, who has this advice for stopping stress snacking

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With all of us thrown completely out of routine for well over a year now, it's no wonder our eating behaviours have been affected by being in a global pandemic.

If you are struggling to manage your food intake at this time, it is firstly really important to remember that you are totally normal and feeling guilty for struggling with your snack intake is not going to help.

We also need to remember that gaining a bit of weight is really the least of our worries. I always challenge my clients to ask themselves what it really means if they do gain a little weight at a time when we’re out of routine. Does it mean that you’ll be loved less? Does it mean that you’ll be worse at doing your job? Will you be a less valuable human? We all know logically that the answer to all those questions is “no”. Chances are nobody else will even notice a bit of weight gain so let’s try and keep it in perspective.

It is useful however to explore why we’re so prone to eating during times of stress and anxiety and to challenge ourselves on whether the best response to those feelings is to eat a family pack of crisps or if there are better solutions.

Why do we want to eat more when we’re stressed?

When we have a stress response to something, this means that we release hormones that have effects all over our body. We need to remember that the stress response is fight or flight - that means that your body is physically preparing to either run away from something or fight something so your body tells you that you need lots of extra energy to fuel your battle. Unfortunately, we stayed at home and sat still for the best part of a year. That means that your instinct might be to eat as much as possible but we actually may need to eat less than normal as we are probably burning less energy than we might do in our normal lives.

How to avoid stress eating

Next time you feel like you want to eat out of stress or anxiety, try to watch some funny videos, call a friend, dance to your favourite song or do some stretching, paint your nails or write down all the things you’re grateful for instead. If you can calm your stress and anxiety by filling your brain with chemical signals that tell it that you don’t need to run away or fight, you might be able to curb those stress eating cravings.

How to avoid boredom eating

If you find that you’re eating out of boredom, routine is typically the solution. Try to break each day into four sections using the morning for work or household chores including cooking and tidying. Have a break over lunchtime and take your time over your food in a way that you may not normally get time to do. In the afternoon, go back to working or find a creative outlet or some charity work to occupy your time. The evening can be used for exercise and then food and relaxation. We tend not to feel so bored when we have things to occupy our time.

Create a daily food plan

If it is simply the call of the kitchen cupboards that makes you want to eat, you may find that setting yourself some basic rules is helpful. Set a plan for the day of the times you’ll eat and what snacks you’ll have. You may find that when you know it is happening at a set time, you are less preoccupied with snacking all the time. Keep drinks and healthy snacks like nuts in your workspace or near you so that you don’t need to go to the kitchen so often.

Why we eat when we’re not hungry

It is helpful to remember that when we eat for reasons that aren’t to do with hunger, we are really looking for a hit in the reward centre of our brain. When we eat, we get a chemical reward in our brain but there are lots of things you can do to get that reward! Now is a great time to experiment with what activities make you feel good. Find different methods to communication with your friends, it’s ok if video chat and group calls don’t suit you. Find a creative outlet that makes you feel good. There are lots of great art tutorials online, some people like puzzles or playing a musical instrument. Find a way of exercising that feels good for you. Find workouts online like dancercise, boxing, Pilates or aerobics and experiment with combining them with a walk outside. Put on your favourite song and dance around the house! Look for documentaries or series that you love and give yourself time to enjoy them. Put time into your self-care routine. Watch comedy or animal videos online! Anything that makes you feel good is great!

Food is linked so much with our mental state and our environment. In these times where many of the things we love to do are restricted, eating can become more of a focus. Above all, remember that you are human and this will happen but try to do positive activities that serve your mind and your body three to four times per day and food will become less of a focus.

Sophie Medlin is a consultant dietitian and founder of  City Dietitians ; prior to this she worked for five years as a lecturer and researcher in nutrition and dietetics at King's College London and Plymouth University.