It’s 4 pm, your deadline is looming large, and the stress is overwhelming. What should you do? Your arm makes up its mind for you, reaching into your desk drawer and emerging with a chocolate or bag of chips. The treat consumed, you feel calm for a while but then the guilt begins to eat away at you; the stress cycle starts all over again.

Data from Optum, a provider of employee assistance programmes to corporates, reveals that 46% of the workforce in organizations in India suffers from some or the other form of stress. The study found 43% of the 20,000 respondents had skewed BMI; of them, 30% had diabetic risk, 30% had hypertension risk while 46% had high stress levels.

Stress is known to drive and sustain lifestyle behaviors such as eating disorders, inactivity and smoking. Susan Albers, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic and author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, says, “When you’re stressed, your body is flooded with cortisol, which makes you crave carbs, sugar and fatty foods.”

While you can’t control everything in your work environment, including stress, you can check your unhealthy eating habits. Here’s how:

#1 Sip on something

Avoid your cup of java and choose green or black tea instead of reaching for a snack. The beverage contains theanine, an amino acid that increases levels of relaxing chemicals in the brain. Albers recommends adding a dash of cinnamon to curb sugar cravings when stressed. Chamomile has also been shown to improve anxiety in adults.

#2 Step out for 15 minutes

When the urge to eat hits, be it due to boredom or stress, experts recommend getting away from your desk and stepping out of the office for a walk. Fresh air works as a natural stress reducer while a bit of exercise could help can curb cravings for sugary snacks.

#3 Think long term

Research shows the pleasure you get from eating comfort foods lasts only three minutes. Albers suggests asking yourself one important question: “What is going to make me feel better for longer than 3 minutes? Usually, it’s not a cookie.”

#4 Breathe through your left nostril

A new version of pranayama at the workplace can help prevent stress eating. Research shows that blocking your right nostril and breathing only through your left, or alternate breathing through the left, then right nostril, activates the parasympathetic nervous system, causing your heart rate to slow, blood pressure to lower and help you relax.

#5 Stop for a deep breath

Inhale deeply and allow air to fill your whole belly. This stimulates the vagus nerve, a nerve that runs from the abdomen to the brain, and offers an immediate calming effect. Deep breathing also means more oxygen to the brain, which ensures better decision-making skills.

#6 Distract yourself

If you’re craving something that you shouldn’t be having, engage your mind and hands with some fun activity. Dr Jennifer Nasser, associate professor of nutrition sciences at Drexel University, suggests “knitting, coloring or drawing”. Or else, there’s texting.

#7 Send yourself – or a work buddy – an email

Decipher your pattern of stress eating by emailing yourself every time you eat. Jot down the circumstances that led you to binge – was it a sudden deadline, a botched-up presentation or a review with your manager? Look at the emotional eating patterns and work on a plan on how you can deal with things differently next time.

Alternately, email a work buddy (one you’ve already sounded out about the stress eating problem) and tell her/him how you’re feeling. You can’t eat till you get a response to your email.

#8 Keep healthy snacks handy

At times, it’s possible that you are actually hungry. But instead of ordering greasy parathas or Chinese food, keep the makings of a healthy snack handy. Peanut butter, nuts, roasted chana and an apple are good options for your drawer.

#9 Indulge with a small taste

If your cube mate has opened a large pack of chips, satisfy yourself with a small handful. Dr Wendy Bazilian, co-author of Eat Clean, Stay Lean, feels “a little can go a long way”. A Cornell University study has shown that eating less than half an ounce of chocolate or potato chips satisfied peoples’ cravings just as well as eating a portion as much as 10 times bigger.

#10 Never skip meals

Ensuring adequate nutrition will help with stress management and is likely to reduce binges at your desk. Insufficient amounts of magnesium or dips in blood sugar may lead to cravings. We all know where that goes.

The next time you feel yourself slipping, honestly ask yourself: “Am I hungry?” A little introspection may help you put the brakes on stress eating.

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