How I stopped stress eating

For years, when I found myself surrounded by free food, my willpower vanished. I ate all the desserts available, went to the micro-kitchen every 30 minutes to eat more chocolate, and generally pigged out whenever possible. Even when the food isn’t free, I’m constantly tempted to buy ice cream, candy, and cookies at the supermarket. In my pantry those won’t last a day.

I learned strategies to control myself better.

  • No snacks or dessert except fruit
  • No alcohol
  • Exercise every day, even if it’s only seven minutes

Those worked well for a while, but recently I couldn’t stop snacking when stressed. If I didn’t know how to do something or a task was ambiguous, I’d go to the kitchen and eat something while I thought about it. On a bad day I’d be completely stuffed but continue to compulsively put food in my mouth. Even when I was full, it still tasted good!

I tried a couple of strategies that didn’t work.

  • Low carb/no sweets
  • Maximum 1 sweet per day
  • Only fruit
  • Drink water instead of snacking
  • Don’t get up from desk
  • Go for a walk instead

I’d always make excuses for myself why it was okay to make an exception, and from there it was a slippery slope down to binging again.

I tried to think about what was going on that caused me to want to binge. My best explanation: since eating was such a reliable pleasure, there was a positive feedback loop reinforcing that compensatory behavior whenever I felt uncertain or upset. What if there were a way to make eating those things make me feel bad, so that instead it’d be a negative feedback loop? Inspired by Dilan Dane and Alex Vermeer, I decided to try something drastic.

The ketogenic diet

Ketosis is the body’s fasting metabolism, in which it switches over from glucose to fat as the primary source of cellular energy. In a ketogenic diet, you must consume less than 20–50g of net carbohydrates per day in order to maintain ketosis. During the transition period, the body mostly uses up its stores of glucose but has not yet started producing sufficient ketone bodies (processed fats) to fully power the body and mind. This causes “keto flu” and its associated muscle cramps and brain fog.

The diet originally became popular in the 1920s as a treatment for epilepsy. It was effective, but due to new medications, it went out of style. Now it is coming back as startups like Virta use it to combat type II diabetes (evidence). There are also hints that it could also offer even more benefits, but not enough research yet.

It’s difficult to eat that few carbohydrates. Even vegetables like brussel sprouts have enough carbohydrates to kick you out of ketosis. Meat products like sausage and meatballs often have carbohydrate-based fillers, too. Barbecue meat is covered in sweet, carb-rich sauce. When you’re trying to maintain ketosis, eating at restaurants turns you into the customer from hell.

But nearly eliminating carbs is possible, and once you’re in ketosis, it actually makes everything far easier. We have to make hundreds of choices every day. Mark Zuckerberg famously has only one outfit so he can save his mental energy for the choices that matter. Similarly, in ketosis, there are usually few enough choices that it’s easy to decide what to eat. When I make a bad choice, I feel terrible! And I love it! Because that bad feeling negatively reinforces my snacking habit. It’s also easier because ketosis suppresses appetite.

Cycling

Going out with friends while on keto can be frustrating. It also seems like an unnecessary restriction for someone who is not diabetic, doesn’t have epilepsy, and loves food. Inspired by Leo Urbina, my compromise is to follow keto during the weekdays and eat whatever I want on weekends. I’ve been doing this for three weeks now and it’s been great. I train my willpower during the week. On the weekend, from force of habit I still eat a few keto meals. Key points:

  • Endurance exercise uses up glycogen stores, decreasing transition time to ketosis
  • Only having a day or two eating carbs prevents buildup of large glycogen stores
  • Cycling frequently decreases transition time (anecdotal)

I couldn’t find any studies on factors affecting the time it takes to transition into ketosis. Once I get a continuous glucose monitor I’ll track this.

What do I eat??

This is the biggest barrier to most people considering the diet. There are tons of resources on the web for this, but the photos at the top of this post are four meals I ate this week. You can see it’s usually straight meat, leafy greens (cruciferous vegetables), and eggs.

If you can handle dairy, unlike me, you can also add cheese (as long as it’s sufficiently aged so the bacteria eat all the sugar), whey protein, and for the ultimate easy-mode, Ample K. When I’m not at work, I usually make a simple salad with mixed greens, nuts, and either mayo or olive oil and vinegar. Special treats include 100% dark chocolate or a cappucino with unsweetened almond milk.

It can be delicious. Trading a cupcake for a steak seems like a fair trade to me.

There are many reasons to try keto, but I’ve never heard of anyone doing it for willpower training. I don’t want to overpromise on the results. I’ve only done it for the last three weeks and initial signs are positive, not a magic bullet. If you struggle like I do to control what you eat and when you eat it, give it a try. Though it seems scary, it’s a cheap experiment . It takes less than a week to get into ketosis, it’s safe, and it only requires slightly different choices when you go shopping. Let me know how it goes!

Software engineer, tinkerer, aspiring mad scientist

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store