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Mental Health

8 Ways to Reduce Stress Eating During Your Fertility Journey

When life gets overwhelming, many of us naturally turn to food. A nutritionist shares eight ways to navigate stress eating for those on a fertility journey.

March 24th, 2023 | 8 min. read

By Jennifer Walsh, RDN

We all know how important it is to nourish our bodies, especially during fertility treatment, but it often becomes more difficult to prioritize well-balanced meals, snacks, and staying hydrated when stress, anxiety, and other emotions come into play.

In this article:

Prioritizing Self-Care on a Fertility Journey  

Infertility leaves many of us feeling out of control. Most of us know that one of the few things we can take control of during this time is our nutrition. But what do we do when our primary go-to coping tool for stress becomes food and leads to mindless eating?

As a former Illume Fertility patient myself, I understand firsthand how difficult it is to prioritize self-care and good nutrition when you're feeling completely consumed by fertility treatment. Happiness, sadness, anger, and loneliness are just a few of the many different emotions that can pop up during a fertility or family-building journey.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I also know how much of an impact nutrition has on both your physical and emotional health. With both perspectives in mind, I work closely with patients to help them optimize their diet and lifestyle while remaining empathetic to the challenges at hand. 

The Relationship Between Stress & Food

Using familiar, easy-to-access foods to help us cope with these emotions may feel very comforting. And it's only natural to gravitate towards those foods when you're stressed. Using foods to help us cope with these emotions may feel very comforting.

There may actually be a good reason behind "stress eating." Stress in the short term can shut down our appetite. The nervous system sends signals to our body to release the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), which triggers the body’s fight or flight response and puts the desire to eat on the back burner. 

However, during periods of long-term or chronic stress, a different hormone, cortisol, is released, and this can cause increased appetite. Cortisol can also increase our desire to eat higher fat or sugary foods.

8 Ways to Reduce Stress Eating

If you do find yourself eating more to cope with the roller coaster of emotions that come with infertility, here are some strategies and reminders that may be helpful:

1. Emotional Eating Isn't Always Bad

Yes, really! Emotional eating is not always a negative thing - food is often tied to emotion. We may celebrate good news with a delicious meal, enjoy gathering with friends and family for potlucks, or find comfort in baking and cooking.

The first step to managing emotional or stress eating is acknowledging this fact. 

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2. Don't Skip Meals

It may sound counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to reduce overeating or stress eating is to be sure you are regularly eating balanced meals and not skipping meals (which can lead to you feeling overly hungry).

We recommend that you aim for three meals a day, along with one or two snacks, if needed.

Nutritionist Tip: Include a lean protein, a complex carb, healthy fats and lots of fruits and veggies at mealtime. Generally speaking, the more colors on your plate, the better!

If you've been diagnosed with insulin resistance (a common symptom of PCOS), eating regular meals and snacks is essential to keeping your blood sugar regulated. 

3. Listen to Your Body's Cues

Paying attention to what your body is telling you is essential, especially when it comes to hunger and fullness cues. Keep in mind, hunger may not always appear with a growling stomach - you may instead notice that you are:

  • Extra tired
  • Have low energy
  • Feel cranky
  • Have a headache
These sensations can also be indications that it is time for a meal or balanced snack.These sensations can also be indications that it is time for a meal or balanced snack.

Nutritionist Tip: Utilize the hunger/fullness scale, which helps you to tune into your body. Try using a scale from 1 to 10 to determine your level of hunger and fullness, with 1 being painfully hungry, 5 being neutral, and 10 being painfully full. 

Try not to let your hunger drop to a 1 or 2 on that scale. Take time to enjoy foods when eating and check in with yourself during a meal to see how you are feeling. Stop eating when you are a 5 or 6 on the scale.

4. Choose Your Snacks Wisely

When picking a snack, always try to include a protein, carb, and healthy fat, which will help satisfy your hunger for a longer period of time and avoid a sugar crash. Here are some of my favorite snack ideas:

  • Hummus with veggies (or try chocolate hummus with strawberries)
  • Plain yogurt with fruit and nuts
  • Veggies with yogurt-based dip
  • Nut butter bites with dark chocolate chips and dried fruit or seeds

Nutritionist Tip: Plan ahead! Make sure to pack snacks to bring to work or for the commute home so you don't get stuck without a healthy snack on hand.

5. Don't Assign Morality to Foods

Try not to label foods as “bad” or restrict certain foods – this can cause overeating or shame, which are counterproductive to your overall goals when it comes to nutrition.

Instead of restricting specific foods, focus instead on getting enough energy and nutrients from your meals and snacks, staying hydrated, and avoiding assigning moral value (good or bad) to food in general. Everything in moderation!

6. Keep a Journal

Start a journal documenting the various emotions you experience before stress eating occurs to determine if there is a pattern. This can be helpful because it allows you the space to recognize what you're feeling, then take a pause and try other techniques to manage that emotion instead of eating.

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7. Prioritize Good Sleep

A good night's sleep is important, and not just for cognitive function and other processes in the body. Did you know that a lack of sleep can actually increase hunger hormones, causing you to intake a higher amount of calories during the day?

Some ways to improve your "sleep hygiene" include going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, shutting off phones and TVs an hour before sleeping (try a book instead), and setting up rituals or routines to signal bedtime is coming for your brain and body.

8. Find Ways to Manage Stress 

Create your very own stress management "toolkit" with some go-to coping strategies. The following are some of our most frequently recommended strategies and ideas:

  • Include exercise or intentional movement each day
  • Find JOY in movement - try yoga, dancing, or hiking
  • Try meditation or journaling
  • Call a friend or family member that you know will provide support
  • If you enjoy cooking or baking, prep balanced meals or snacks to have available

Take Advantage of Support From Experts

If you are struggling with emotional eating, feeling unsure of what modifications to make to your diet or lifestyle while trying to conceive, or simply need a "reset" on your nutrition, we encourage you to reach out to your Patient Navigator to set up a nutrition consult with me or Jill Hickey

In addition, take advantage of the holistic support offerings available to you through Illume Fertility's Integrated Fertility & Wellness program!

Besides nutrition counseling, we offer fertility acupuncture, free support groups and yoga classes, and connections to individual or couples' counselors who specialize in therapy focused on fertility and family-building. %MCEPASTEBIN%

Jennifer Walsh, RDN

Jennifer Walsh is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who is also a former Illume Fertility patient. She understands how challenging a fertility journey can be and approaches each interaction with her patients with kindness and expertise to help them reach their unique goals.

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