Overcoming stress-related eating

Overcoming stress-related eating and cravings for sweet foods – Dr T’s story.

Dr T is a practising NHS GP.  Nearing her 50th birthday she had put on weight steadily since the birth of her youngest son 15 years before.

In her busy afternoon surgeries Dr T would get hungry and took healthy snacks to work but found that between patients she might eat an apple, banana, tangerine and nuts but then end up raiding the biscuit tin in the practice kitchen when none of the healthy foods seemed satisfying.  She realized that her eating was more about dealing with rising stress levels over the course of a busy clinic rather than eating because she was still hungry.  She also found herself snacking on sweets on her way home in the car.

Dr T’s meals were very healthy and she exercised regularly, and she just wanted to change her afternoon eating patterns to stop the mid-afternoon cravings for sweet foods.

Dr T’s goal was to lose 10kg and to be able to keep the weight off easily.

The work we did

Step 1: Knowing what to change

Using the Eating Habits Checklist Dr T identified her unhelpful habits:

  • Eating meals beyond the point of just full
  • Eating when stressed
  • Craving sweet foods particularly cake or chocolate in the evening
  • Snacking in the car on the way home from work

Step 2:  Stopping eating at “just full” (+3 on the Appetite Pendulum)

The first change we agreed was for Dr T to start tuning in to her natural fullness signals.  Using the Appetite Pendulum Dr T was able to be more aware of her fullness signals and to adjust the size of her meals to be slightly smaller, as she tuned in to her gut and stopped eating at the point of being just full (+3)

Step 3:  Dealing with mid-afternoon stress-related eating

In her busy clinics Dr T could see that her pattern was to try to eat only healthy fruit and nuts when she felt part-hunger, part-stress but that eventually there was a breaking point where she went in search of biscuits. I suggested that she replace this pattern with instead choosing something that would be really satisfying and enjoyable, and just have that. She chose a Waitrose brownie. I suggested that she buy one and cut it in half, eat half part way through her clinic and leave half for the next day. She would really look forward to this, and she was to focus on eating it mindfully (by which I mean with awareness, not slowly; she didn’t have time to do anything slowly during her clinic). After 3 days of allowing herself to really have the half-cake, Dr T found that she hadn’t wanted any other sugary foods that week! She then felt in control of whether to choose a half-cake or a banana for a mid-afternoon snack, and found that she tended to choose the banana.

Step 4:  Dealing with sweet cravings in the evening

Having a hot drink after her evening meal helped Dr T to reduce her cravings for sweet foods in the evening. She also took up sewing in the evening as a distraction which occupied her mind and hands.

Step 5:  Stopping snacking on sweets in car on the drive home

This was partly a reaction to feeling bored in traffic jams and partly to do with feeling anxious that if she didn’t eat now she’d get too hungry by the time she’d made her evening meal. Dr T decided that when her husband was at home, she’d text him and ask him to put something in the oven ready for when she got home, and if he wasn’t going to be there she’d take a banana in the car for days when she did get definitely hungry. These two options meant that she felt less anxious about feeling hungry and discovered that she could tolerate mild hunger, which meant she felt more in control of her eating. 

The outcome

 Dr T lost 7 kg over the course of 9 weeks and used this as the first step to build on, making further healthy lifestyle changes.

In Dr T’s own words:

“Anyone who suggests to me that I can eat (half) a piece of chocolate cake at 3pm is great! Seriously Helen’s approach is so simple and yet so detailed. Eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. But then Helen works with you to find out why we eat when we are not hungry and why we don’t stop eating when we are full. This is NOT a diet. This is change for life and something I recommend to my patients.” 

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