When I ask my patients what they do to cope with stress, many of them answer that they eat. How did we evolve into a situation where so many people use food to manage stress, when food was originally intended as fuel for a body to function optimally?

Weight loss and healthy weight maintenance is difficult in and of themselves. But throw into the mix stress eating and you’ve really got an uphill battle ahead of you. So, how can we better equip ourselves in this battle of healthy weight management? Instead of food, we can use our mind and breath to help us de-stress so as to make healthier food choices. Easier said than done? It doesn’t have to be. I always remind my patients to do two things when they want to stress eat:

1)      Look at the food in front of you before you eat it and ask yourself why you are eating that? Is it because you are hungry? If you are hungry, then eat a small portion of it. If you are not hungry and it’s not time for a main meal, then don’t eat it. Instead, you should control your stress with breath work.

2)      What is breath work? It is one aspect of our basic physiology we are able to control. When we slow our breath, we slow our mind and our heart rate. With that slowing, we gradually increase our calming system called the parasympathetic nervous system and we can decrease our stress response.

To keep things simple, let’s use basic breath work to calm our body and mind in order to de-stress. When we can intentionally decrease our stress level several times per day, we are better able to handle food temptations. Overall, this is a much healthier way to deal with stress because breath work can help decrease stress hormones…overeating will not.

The easiest version is to just double the time it takes for you to take a slow inhalation breath and use that as your exhalation breath. For example, breathe in a count of 4 and breathe out for a count of 8. Do this cycle of breathing about 5 times during the day when you feel stressed.

Or, if you are perpetually stressed, then you need to set a timer every 1-2 hours to do the 5 cycle breath work. It only takes a few seconds, but it will significantly calm your stress level when done several times daily. This way, your stress level won’t sneak up on you in the version of stuffing down 2 donuts at once or eating an entire bag of chips.

Just remember, be mindful and really take a look at what you’re eating and identify whether you want to eat it because you are hungry or because you are stressed. If it’s stress, do the breath work.  It will calm down your stress hormones, which ultimately is beneficial not just to your health, but also your waist line.