A woman with an ice cream cone. Photo via Pixabay By Ursula Ridens, RDN

At the end of a long week, it can feel good to reward yourself with a treat like ice cream or pizza. If eating for emotional reasons seems to be habit or routine, there are alternatives you may want to consider.

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Treating ourselves to foods that bring pleasure is a normal part of eating. However, it’s important to be aware of patterns of using food as the primary way to treat oneself, which can negatively influence physical and mental health.

When you feel the urge to snack your stress away, stop and think about what’s driving your desire to eat and what you really need in that moment to take care of the underlying cause. Take a second to pause and get clarity on whether you are physically hungry or if your desire to eat is for emotional or situational reasons.
If you’re not physically hungry, here are six non-food-related ways you can take care of yourself.

  • Journal or draw

Instead of using food to deal with feelings, try expressing yourself in a journal. Getting your thoughts out through writing, drawing or sketching can help you work through how you are feeling. Coloring and drawing can also be a fun way to relax.

  • Talk to someone

Talking to a close friend or family member about your day is a direct way to express how you feel. You can also do something fun together to connect and get your mind off food such as playing a game or making a craft.

  • Meditate

Listen to a short guided meditation or try grounding practices like breathing deeply or noticing the feeling of your feet on the ground.

  • Have a spa day

Schedule a massage, manicure or pedicure. You can also create your own spa treatment at home by taking a warm bath, using essential oils or giving yourself a hand massage.

  • Listen to music

Jamming out to your favorite songs or listening to relaxing music is a quick and easy way to de-stress after a long day.

  • Experience movement

Try going for a walk, doing simple stretches or taking a yoga class to clear your mind. Get outdoors to enjoy the warmth of the sun on your body and engage your muscles.

But What if you are hungry?

If you are physically hungry, try opting for a snack that will hit the spot and offer a punch of nutrients, such as nuts mixed with dried fruit and dark chocolate; popcorn; whole-grain crackers with cheese; or a banana with peanut butter, maybe even drizzled with honey!

It’s important to note that treating yourself to a snack like chips or ice cream is OK. When we label a food that we truly enjoy as bad (“junk food”), it creates a mindset of deprivation resulting in an increased excitement and desire to eat that food, which can lead to food cravings and overeating.

If you are physically hungry and want a snack as a treat, go for it! Just know that if you feel yourself using food to manage stress and emotions, there are other options to help you feel better. When craving foods, you know yourself best. For some, giving permission to eat these foods in moderation, balanced with other nourishing foods throughout the day, may help to avoid overeating.

So, when it comes to using food to treat yourself, check in with your emotions and hunger level to see what your body, heart, and mind needs in the moment.

Ursula Ridens is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified intuitive eating counselor with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. To learn more about Sharp’s nutrition education and counseling program, or to schedule an appointment, visit www.sharp.com/nutritioneducation.