Ask a Health Coach: Stress Eating, Sabotagers, and Why There’s No Wagon to Fall Off Of

Hi Folks! In this week’s edition of Ask a Health Coach, Erin is here to share her insights on the different ways we cope with stress, what to do when you live with a saboteur, and how accountability and self-efficacy can help you stay on track. Got more questions? Go ahead and post them down in the comments below or over in the Mark’s Daily Apple Facebook group.

Lance asked:

I’ve been doing my fair share of stress eating over the past year and I’m ready to clean up my diet. I like the idea of using exercise as a way to de-stress instead of downing junk food. What kind of workout routine do you recommend?

You’re not alone in wanting to reel in your habits. But let’s start by pulling back the curtain on your motivation.

First Off, Is Stress Eating Actually Bad?

Anytime we eat for reasons other than to satisfy hunger, it can be classified as emotional eating (and that includes stress eating).1 It’s a way to cope with or numb the feelings we don’t want to deal with. We’ve all done it. Even me. And although the term gets a bad rap, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

People who recognize their stress-eating behaviours have better odds of finding healthier ways to cope.2 Why? Simply because we can’t change the things we don’t know we’re doing! That being said, chronic emotional eating can come with negative consequences as you’ve noticed, in addition to harboring feelings of guilt, shame, and the potential to develop more serious disorders.

Chronic Exercise is a Coping Mechanism Too

When it comes to diet culture, we get the message that binging on bags of chips or overdoing it on ice cream after a tough day is something to be ashamed of, while throwing around free weights to blow off steam should be something to celebrate. Coping is coping. We deal with (or completely avoid) our emotions in so many ways — food, alcohol, TV, and yes, exercise.

Some are just deemed more “acceptable” in the name of health.

Healthier coping strategies, like exercise, may help you tolerate stress or temporarily offer a distraction, but it’s important to face your emotions at some point. And while I firmly believe that movement is imperative for your metabolic health, diving headfirst into workout routine to offset stress-eating sounds like it’s got some less-than-healthy intentions behind it. When you swap one coping mechanism for another, you’re not really doing yourself any favors.

Consistency is the Best Approach

My recommendations for workout routines are ones you enjoy doing — things you can see yourself doing consistently. 3 And there’s research to back it up. One study followed participants who’d lost and kept off 30 or more pounds and found that the secret to their success was the consistency of their workouts.4

Instead of using exercise as a form of punishment to off-set your behaviors during the pandemic or to cope with guilt or shame, do it because your body is a miraculous organism that deserves to be honored and moved daily. Trust me, you’ll see results without having to spend the better part of your day in the gym.

Jim asked:

Every time my wife and I eat out, she has something snarky to say about what I order. I’m not trying to make her eat like I do, I’d just like her to quit giving me such a hard time simply because I don’t want to eat my burger with a bun. Any tips for dealing with difficult spouses?

People love to judge, don’t they? Unfortunately, humans are wired that way. When they perceive someone’s actions as a threat to their own personal beliefs, they often retaliate with unnecessary snarkiness.

What Your Spouse’s Comments Really Mean

Even though her comments are more about her than they are about you, it still makes dining together an uncomfortable experience.5 I see this all the time with my health coaching clients. One-half of a couple decides they’re done feeling fat and foggy, while the other feels “fine” and finds no reason to change how they’re eating. You want their love and support, but instead, you’re stuck with someone who acts irritated or may even try to sabotage your efforts.

How to Deal with a Difficult Partner

I’m a firm believer that you can’t change other people, but you don’t have to let your spouse’s judgements derail your own goals. Here are a few strategies I use with my own clients to help them manage partners who aren’t on the same page:

  1. Have an agreement in advance. Often, there’s a disconnect between what couples expect from each other. Your spouse might know you’re eating paleo, but may not realize that means all the time (not just at home or when you’re being “good”). Let her know what you’re doing, why it’s important to you, and that you’d love to have her support.
  2. Be empathetic. It’s easy to feel annoyed in this situation, but consider the emotions your spouse might be experiencing. There’s a good chance she feels insecure, jealous, or worried about your future together, which is causing her to act out.
  3. Find common ground. The two of you might not be able to agree on what’s on your plates, but by finding something you both enjoy (hiking, walking, watching movies), you’ll reduce the perceived separation that’s causing tension between you.

Get more tips on dealing with a difficult partner in this article I wrote for Mark’s Daily Apple last year.

Rhonda asked:

I’m loosely following a paleo and keto diet, but always seem to let too many treats creep in. I know it’s not good for me (I’m pre-diabetic and heart disease runs in my family), but I keep trying, then falling off the wagon and getting discouraged. What can I do to stay on track?

I’ll start by saying that “falling off the wagon” is kind of a cop out. To me, it’s an excuse people use to give themselves permission to give up. So easy right? You just fall off the wagon and then get back on when it’s convenient for you.

Here’s the deal though. There is no wagon. Which means, there’s no wagon to fall off of or get back on to. This isn’t a diet you try and if it doesn’t work you just shrug your shoulders and chalk it up to “not being right for you”. This is your life, and you have the ability to decide what you want to do with it. And that includes how you feed yourself and whether or not you’re cool with taking actions that contribute to chronic disease.

Start by Believing You Can

There’s a concept in psychology called self-efficacy.6 It’s basically the idea that if someone believes they can change their behaviors, they’ll be more successful at doing so.

Self-efficacy is measured by how well you deal with temptation or situations that are triggers for you (i.e. treats creeping in). You might want to avoid desserts or stop buying processed foods altogether, but if you feel like you’re incapable of handling the commitment, the challenges, and the ups and downs that inherently come with it, you’re sabotaging yourself from the get-go.

Strong self-efficacy looks like:

  • Thinking of challenging problems as tasks that can be mastered
  • Valuing yourself and your actions
  • Staying dedicated to your goals even when the going gets tough
  • Getting back on track without wallowing in guilt or shame after a setback 

Then Hold Yourself Accountable

Let me ask you this: do you believe you can prevent diabetes and heart disease through your food choices? Or do you believe you’ll always be addicted to sugar or can’t stick with a plan or that everyone in your family is overweight so you will be too?

Admitting that you’re “loosely” following a plan is a serious disservice to yourself. Get clear on what you’re doing. And I don’t mean “paleo” or “keto”. What are you eating for breakfast tomorrow? What will you do when you get hungry? When and where are you shopping for more meat and veggies? Then, identify the actions you’ll be taking and assess how you’re doing. Most importantly though, figure out why this goal is important to you. Finding your why is a key element for uncovering your real motivation for change — and staying on track.

What else would you add? Share your thoughts in the comments.

About the Author

Erin Power

Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

If you have a passion for health and wellness and a desire to help people like Erin does, consider becoming a certified health coach yourself. Learn the 3 simple steps to building a successful health coaching business in 6 months or less in this special info session hosted by Primal Health Coach Institute co-founder Mark Sisson.

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