Eating because of stress or boredom? How to stop.

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Man looking into refrigerator for food, refrigerator.

If you find yourself turning to food more often these days for comfort or just because it’s there, you’re in good company. Packaged mac and cheese, frozen pizza, chocolate bars and snack crackers are flying off the grocery store shelves.

“I actually used to teach a class at our Clinic about this, ‘Managing Trigger Eating,’” said Becky Sulik, a Registered Dietician (RD), a Licensed Dietician (LD), and Certified Diabetes Care & Education Specialist (CDCES). “The trigger that’s really common is boredom or stress. I mean, you know…You name an emotion, and we’ll eat for it.”

As the director of education at the Rocky Mountain Diabetes & Osteoporosis Center in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Sulik works closely with physicians and patients to facilitate diabetes self-management education.

Trigger/mindless eating and T1D

Trigger eating—also called mindless eating—is not a good habit for anyone, but it can be especially problematic for people living with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

“I think one of the biggest issues for people with type 1 diabetes is that when you eat mindlessly, you’re usually not taking insulin for it,” Sulik said. “I’ve been living with type 1 for 35 years and I’ve experienced this myself.”

Sulik said she also sees this in her clients with T1D.

“Often, if they’re grabbing stuff out of the bag of chips as they walked by, they’re probably not dosing themselves with insulin for it—because they aren’t really thinking about it–and that could contribute their blood sugars being a lot more variable and maybe higher than they want to be,” Sulik said.

Out of sight, out of mind

If you’re worried about keeping your or your family’s eating habits in check while staying at home, there are a few simple things you can do to set yourself up for success, said Sulik.

Where you store your food, for instance, can make a difference.

“A lot of times people are triggered when they merely see food,” Sulik said. “So don’t keep what we might call junk foods or easily accessible foods on your counter. Make them a little bit harder to get to.”

Eat at the table

“Another rule that I tend to teach clients about—if we find that they’re having trouble with this kind of mindless eating—is encourage them to have a rule at home that they eat only at the dinner table.”

Sulik says it doesn’t matter what you are eating. It can be any food you choose. What matters is that you pay attention to the experience of eating and how you feel.

“If they say ‘I’m hungry, I would like a snack. I’m going to go dish out a portion. I’m going to sit down at the table and eat it. I am going to pay attention to the fact that I am eating so that I can recognize if I’m full, if I’m satisfied and stop eating when I reach that point,’” Sulik said.

Limit portion sizes

Sulik also suggested that people limit portion sizes. One way to do this is to use plates and bowls and not eat straight from the package.

Another way, Sulik said, is to buy foods already packaged into single servings—although she acknowledged that such products can be more expensive.

“As an alternative, people can make their own snack size serving, you know divvy things up,” she said. “I think that works well for kids to have little snack servings—kids with diabetes but also really anyone looking to snack in a smarter way.”

Use a hunger/fullness scale

Sulik adopted the hunger/fullness scale technique—which she has used with some of her clients—from the book Intuitive Eating.

It is what is sounds like: a scale from 0 to 10 to determine how sated you are. Zero is starving, 10 is stuffed and five is satisfied.

“I advise them to eat slowly and pause so they can kind of see ‘where am I when I’m done eating this item?’,” Sulik said. “This helps them recognize if they are satisfied.”

Go “urge surfing”

Urge surfing is another practice Sulik recommends.

“When people have an urge or a craving, it’s kind of like a wave,” Sulik said. “It builds in intensity really quickly. That urge—when it feels most intense—lasts for about 5 to 20 minutes, with the average being about 10 to 15 minutes.”

When you feel that intense urge or craving, Sulik said that’s when you go urge surfing.

Here’s how it works:

  • You have a box or a jar or something with a whole bunch of small pieces of paper in it. On each piece of paper, you’ve written activities or tasks that take about 10 to 20 minutes to complete.
  • When you feel you just HAVE to have whatever food you’re craving, you pick a slip of paper out of the box or jar, and you do that activity or task.

“So, it could be things like doing a meditation. It could be vacuuming your living room rug, It could be going for a walk, or calling a friend, it could be cleaning out the junk drawer things like that,” Sulik said.

“It’s kind of a distraction so that if you’re really bored or lonely or sad or whatever it is, this gives you a distraction or a pause,” Sulik said. “So once that 10-15 minutes of your activity—and your intense craving—passes, you can decide whether you really want to eat that food you’re craving.”

Candy cravings? Virtual happy hours? How to indulge responsibly

Part of intuitive or mindful eating is not viewing foods as “good” or “bad.”

“Don’t villainize food,” Sulik said. “If you prohibit a food, I guarantee people will want it more. Food restriction increases food interest.”

Rather, the point is to be more aware of why you are eating. Paying attention to your other behaviors connected to eating—such as when you eat, how you feel while you’re eating or shortly after you’ve eaten—can help.

Treating yourself with candy or the occasional adult beverage are two indulgences that are still available via the essential businesses allowed to remain open.

To help you indulge as safely and responsibly as possible, we’ve dug out our sheets outlining candy carbohydrate counts (for Halloween and Easter candies, many of which are still on sale or available year-round) and drinking safely with T1D.