Stress Less: How To Manage Your Worst Weeks By Eating More Intelligently

The word “cheese” is so alluring. Just one syllable, and you’re probably already lost in visions of savory goo. Melting grilled cheese sandwiches, French picnics with a wheel of brie and the mac ’n’ cheese your dad often threw together from scratch on Friday nights are all present -- bonus points if you’re salivating a little.

If you’re like us, you regularly daydream about cheese the way other people probably think about a lover. Don’t even get us started on the internet’s wealth of gooey pizza GIFs.

As much as we’d like to blame anyone but ourselves for that late night dairy binge, it’s really our weakness causing us to overdo it. But look closer, and you’ll probably start to see a pattern. You may eat salads four out of five lunches, but when life picks up the pace, you’re the first one headed to Panera for a panini.

It’s one part emotions and one part physiology, according to Amanda Foti, a New York-based dietician who works with weight management counseling company, Selvera. To manage eating healthy during stressful periods, you have to know what both your brain and your body demand.

Understand your body is just trying to stay active.

From an evolutionary standpoint, your body tries to keep itself strong in case you need to outrun a rampaging bear or avoid starving during the winter. So when you stress out, your body tries to save up fuel.

According to Foti, the body produces more cortisol when it’s under pressure — a hormone that usually means more calories being saved as fat in women.

She said,

If you think back to the very beginning, when we were under stressful situations it was usually associated with a lack of fuel or food or water...Fast-forward a few thousand years and today — walking around New York City — it’s not the greatest thing to have.

Unfortunately for women, we’re often eating our worst when the going gets tough. It's a situation Foti understatedly labels  "not ideal." During long days at the office, our calorie-burning opportunities usually max out after a few trips back and forth from the restroom.

Differentiate between emotional cravings and real hunger.

Instead of running to the nearest street meat cart every time you feel overwhelmed, take a big step back from the situation. Even Foti, a dietician, believes it’s nearly impossible to resist a craving the moment it happens.

That’s because, as she explains, the second you mentally decide to go buy that bagel, your brain has already released a reward signal.

She continued,

You have a deadline, and your boss is really coming down on you and now you’re starting to feel not only stress, but also a lot of these other negative emotions going on. We have trained our brains over time, in the society that we live in, that food equals reward.

Unfortunately, the actual meal is very rarely a solution to the pressing problem you’re facing. Instead, it acts as a sugary band-aid for a void you need to fill.

Use planning to avoid a negative spiral.

There’s a recognizable sinking feeling in your stomach after finishing a guilty meal or snack. It’s not just indigestion, but shame that’s climbing your esophagus. Women feel endless pressure to behave impeccably, never choosing a hamburger over a kale salad — but that’s not reality.

Rather than put her clients through the emotional wringer, Foti places emphasis on making mistakes and starting again afterward. She prefers to plan for those challenges.

"You have to prepare for those situations. We try to put ourselves up on such high pedestals of, ‘We can do this, we can be perfect,’" she said.

Don’t aim for goals you can’t meet, like crafting a home-cooked meal every night when you’re staying at the office until 10 pm. Instead, find restaurants around your workplace that offer healthy options and make them your staple.

If you just can’t shake a favorite food, like pasta, trying incorporating it into part of a weekly routine. Foti loves the idea of a Saturday “pasta night,” which will enable you to say no to pesto and shells on Thursday. Make it an event, not just a shameful meal eaten at your desk.

She added,

If we keep all the fun [food] away, chances of trying to stick with that long-term are very, very slim. It also teaches us that if we have something that’s 'off the plan,' then we feel like a failure. None of that should happen if we have a dessert every once in awhile or a slice of pizza.

When in doubt, recharge your body.

The most efficient way to avoid a food breakdown is by keeping your body running on a meal schedule to avoid any unwanted crashes mid-afternoon. Foti recommends eating every three to four hours, an idea echoed by both wellness and fitness professionals, to keep your metabolism humming.

Instead of experiencing dips in blood sugar, you'll stay fueled all day. To eat without overdoing it, try a snack that's high in protein, fiber or whole grains to push you through until 6 pm.

"If you still feel the munchies, it's possible you're not seeking calories at all -- just a way to break up the monotony of the work day," Foti explained. "It’s not even really the food that we’re looking for. It’s just that we need some kind of release."

In cases like that, Foti reminds her clients that distracting yourself from the craving is entirely possible. Whether you decided to take a ten minute walk, or pick up an unsweetened iced tea, chowing down isn't the only way to manage a tough day.