when life gives you lemons strategies for avoiding stress eating and comfort eating

When Life Gives You Lemons: Strategies for Avoiding Stress Eating and Comfort Eating

Melissa McCreery, PhD

No matter how much yoga, meditation, or spa time you put in, life will eventually through you a curve ball. And if your life is anything like mine, life often seems to throw two or three at once. The balance can tip from bliss and balance to stress and overload pretty quickly. And the best new habits, the most well thought out food plans, and the loveliest self-improvement strategies can quickly go to h*ll in a hand basket when stress, exhaustion, or just-plain-misery enter the picture.

When the going gets tough—many women just want a carb-fest.

One of the most frequent questions I am asked is how not to turn to food for stress relief or comfort.

Having a rough day, week, or month? Here are some strategies that can help:

Strategies for Avoiding Stress and Reducing Comfort Eating

Have an Instead Plan

White knuckling it rarely works for very long, and when you eventually have to let go, the reverberations can be huge. In fact, one of the most common triggers for food binges is deprivation and extreme dieting. What this means here is that “not eating,” is not a strategy. If you are going to get through a rotten day without resorting to chocolate, you’re going to need some ideas of what to do instead.

Here’s something else you need to know. When you are in a state of stress or overload, or any other strong emotional state, your brain isn’t firing on all cylinders. Creative problem solving is impaired. It’s best to create your Instead Plan before the crisis hits. You’ve heard this from me before. Start making a list of possible alternatives to overeating now.

Aim for the low hanging fruit

Strategies to avoid comfort eating and stress eating should be easy. If you are having a bad day, don’t expect an awful lot of yourself. When I help my clients craft their instead plans, it’s not uncommon for their first ideas to be out of alignment with their mood and their energy level. “I know that instead of bingeing on leftovers, I should go work out/do the dishes/stop procrastinating on 
 ” are all common responses. Maybe. I’m a firm believer in the power of exercise to shift mood and energy, and accomplishing something does feel good. But if you feel like collapsing onto your sofa and you give yourself a choice between leftover macaroni and cheese and a half hour on the elliptical or finishing your taxes—do you think your instead plan has an iota of a chance? Really?

Identify strategies that match your energy level and your motivation on a cruddy day. That probably means going for the low hanging, easy-to-grab fruit. Also, make sure your strategies meet the same need that the food would be attempting to fill. If you are seeking indulgence and comfort, than “tough love,” isn’t going to fit the bill. Instead of a hard workout, you might want to consider a movie you can get lost in, a phone call with someone who loves you, a lazy evening on the sofa, or a long hot shower.


Sometimes we resort to stress or comfort eating because we simply don’t know what else to do. It’s an attempt to keep going when the going has gotten really tough. It’s hard for high-achievers to comprehend, but sometimes the most effective thing you can do is to do nothing. Stop. Step away from your stress for ten minutes or a day. Change your scenery—leave the room, go outside, or take a short drive. Consider retreating into your senses. Choose a short escape into a sensory experience that is not taste—a warm bath, great smelling tea, a foot massage, or some fragrant flowers. Take a nap. If you are someone who seems to spin out of control with food after a long stressful day, don’t be afraid to throw in your cards for the night and go to bed early. You could probably use the extra sleep anyway and you’ll wake up with more perspective and better focus.

Call in the troops

Stress is often not only a trigger for overeating, but for isolation. It’s not uncommon to feel “too busy” to ask for help or to reach out for support. It’s a big mistake. Tell those who love you that you are having a hard time and you could use some support (even if you aren’t sure what they could do). Give away, delegate, or ask for help with the tasks that you can share or let go of. Ask for company, or ask for the support you need so that you can be left alone. Here’s something important to note. Strategies for avoiding comfort eating and stress eating aren’t usually major life overhauls. They rarely fix the stressful or difficult situation—but then again, neither does eating. What these strategies are designed to do is to help you feed your spirit and your soul during a very tough time.

Isn’t that what comfort really is?