3 Steps to Breaking Free from Emotional Eating

man eating a cookie

Everyone turns to food for comfort occasionally; an ice cream cone as a pick-me-up after a stressful day at work, a piece of chocolate when hormonal… You don’t always eat when we’re hungry, and it’s OK. These small doses of stress eating aren’t dangerous, as long as they happen only now and then.

But this can quickly develop into a habit, and you start turning to food as the primary way to calm and soothe yourself. Now this isn’t OK, and not only because of the extra pounds…

Emotional eating doesn’t solve emotional problems – and not only that; the issue will remain, and if your emotional eating is already out of control and you’re aware of it, it will only make you feel guilty for overeating instead of loving yourself. Once again.

So you enter the magic circle of eating to reduce stress, then feeling guilty for eating, then eating to ease the guilt… a circle that’s not easy to break. Still, it’s possible.

man eating a cookie

What’s So Comforting About Food?

You need to understand the mechanism first, and then react.

Emotional eating is eating to fill emotional needs, rather than to fill your stomach. There are a few reasons why you seek food when you feel bad or stressed out:

  • Cortisol, stress hormone. It fills your body when you’re stressed and makes you crave carbohydrates, sugar and fatty foods. So it can be chemical processes in your body.
  • Eating as a distraction from whatever is bothering you emotionally.
  • Food is convenient – there are vending machines and fast food restaurants at every corner.
  • Comforting memories from the past. Perhaps your mom used to make great cookies, and it links you to your childhood, the era of your life when you felt safe and protected.

Whatever the reason is, you can’t fill emotional hunger with food – it will stay and make you feel worse about yourself or about whatever reason you had for overeating.

How You Can Stop Emotional Eating?

The first step is to be aware that you’re emotionally eating.

OK, so you know that you have a problem, but do you know when it occurs? What situations trigger that behavior? Most of emotional eating happens unconsciously, so make it conscious. The simplest way to do it is to keep a diary.

Every time you overeat or feel compelled to reach for food, write it down. Take a moment to figure out what triggered the urge: what happened, how you feel, when it happened. Ask yourself how physically hungry do you feel.

person binge eating loads of chocolate

After a while you’ll be able to identify the patterns behind your emotional eating. Maybe it’s after spending time with a critical friend or coworker, maybe it’s after having an argument with a family member. Whatever it is, now you’ll be able to pinpoint the precise situations that trigger the unwanted behavior.

The next step is to find a substitute.

You have to put something in the place of stress eating – you basically need alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfillment.

Depending on your trigger, you can try a quick breathing exercise (if it’s a specific person, for example), calling a friend who makes you laugh (if you reach for food when you’re feeling depressed and alone), dance to your favorite song (if the eating occurs when you’re feeling anxiou…

The final step is to practice.

When you define the triggers and when you find a substitute for food, you have done the hard part. Depending on the substitute you’ve chosen you will perhaps need to practice it when you aren’t craving food so you get them down pat before you really need them. Self-massage, breathing, guided imagery… you don’t want to practice them on a very stressful day, so be prepared when the trigger hits.

Soon, you will develop a mindful eating mindset.

A few more tips to make it all more effective:

  • When the craving hits, put off eating for a few minutes and give yourself the opportunity to reach a different decision.
  • Practice accepting your feeling. If you’re sad – be sad, but try to be sad in a productive manner: think about why you’re sad, what’s behind what you’re experiencing, and probably you’ll find that you’re feeling that way for some reason completely different than what you thought it was. So be sad. Be jealous. Be anxious. Don’t obsess over the bad feeling and don’t suppress it – when you allow it to come out, it will relatively quickly lose its power to control your attention.
  • Introduce healthy lifestyle habits to support yourself: be physically active every day, even if it’s just a walk to your office, make time for relaxation and connecting with others. Do things that make you feel good. They will reduce the amount of stress, and the need for emotional eating will quite possibly be dramatically reduced as well.

    Let’s start right away: can you define one situation when you eat without being physically hungry? Do you already have an idea what you can use as the substitute?