One of the most common questions I get asked from clients is how to stop emotional eating. To be honest, emotional eating is something that I’ve always struggled with (and still do struggle with today!). However, these 7 tips to stop emotional eating have helped me and hundreds of my clients, so I hope they help you, too. Please note before we start: I am by no means saying that all sweets are “bad,” or that you should avoid indulging in things you enjoy 100% of the time. What I’m trying to help you avoid here is that out-of-control, not-really-hungry-but-still-plowing-through-the-entire-box emotional eating.
Emotional eating is pervasive in today’s stressed out world. Many of us feel constantly tired, overworked, and stressed out (see this post for how stress is impacting your health). When we feel this way, there are biological reasons we turn to comfort food. To start, eating high-fat foods actually does reduce your perceived and biological stress response, making you feel momentarily better (see this book for more!), and eating high-sugar or high-carbohydrate foods gives you a momentary release of the feel-good hormone serotonin. Having high cortisol (as a result of stress) or being overly tired increases the sensitivity of your reward centers, making you crave even more food.
Aside from the biological reasons, we’ve been taught since we were babies to turn to food when we need comfort. Think about it … when a baby cries, often times, he or she gets fed. When a child gets a shot at the doctor’s office, he or she gets comforted with a lollipop. And of course, most of our celebrations and holidays are centered around food. So we learn, from an early age, that both negative and positive emotions are associated with “treat” food, and we subconsciously carry that thought pattern into our adult lives.
So if you have a regular pattern of emotional eating, I encourage you to think about what may be underlying your need for comfort. Many times, my clients aren’t even aware that they’re turning to candy or chips because of their dissatisfaction at work or their hunger for compassion or understanding from their partner. When we start talking about it and using some of the tips below, they are able to make the connection between the emotion and the behavior, and eventually work to improve the emotion in a healthier way.
Top 7 Tips to Stop Emotional Eating
- Figure out what’s really going on. I work with my clients on a simple strategy, to be used right when the urge to emotionally eat arises. Simply ask yourself to mentally rate your physical hunger on a scale of 1-10, then mentally rate your emotional hunger on a scale of 1-10. Is your physical greater than your emotional? Great! You probably need a healthy snack. If your emotional is greater than your physical, though, there’s likely something else going on. If this is the case, try to name the emotion you are feeling in one word. Are you stressed? Tired? Overwhelmed? Angry? Lonely? Bored? What can you do to alleviate that uncomfortable feeling, aside from turning to food? Taking yourself through this exercise each time you are tempted to emotionally eat is very powerful – give it a shot!
- Do something physical. My personal tendency to eat emotionally happens late at night, usually when I’ve finished a long day of pouring my energy into my clients and still have a bunch of emails or work to do. My underlying emotion is stressed, but I’m also tired, and the best way to give yourself a jolt of positive energy is to do something physical. I love doing a handstand against the wall in my office, because I think it’s silly and makes me laugh, but also gets my blood flowing, gets me out of my chair (unless I’m standing!), and helps reduce the desire to snack. If handstands are not your favorite, go for a 2-minute walk, run up and down the stairs, do 20 jumping jacks, or do 10 squats. Whatever movement you can incorporate will help! And trust me, I know how the tricky brain works (“Oh, I know I should do 20 jumping jacks, but it probably won’t help, and it kinda feels hard to get out of my chair. I’ll just eat the food – that’s easier”). When this happens, just give it a shot – you are stronger than that tricky voice in your head!
- Choose a healthier option. Trust me, I’m working on never having the desire to emotionally eat, and stopping all urges before they even start. But if you’re on your journey like me, it makes sense to have some healthier options to turn to, when the emotional eating urge strikes. My first line of defense is to drink something delicious. Most magazines and blogs will tell you to drink a big glass of water, which I fully endorse, but (let’s be honest!) sometimes, that just doesn’t cut it. Instead, I love drinking a mug of this matcha latte, a Tulsi tea or some Organifi. If I’m turning to food, I aim to go for a veggie pack, Brad’s kale chips, frozen grapes, or even a single serving of Lesser Evil popcorn. If you have these options readily available and encourage yourself to turn to them first, your (my!) potential to eat an entire Family Size bag of M&Ms diminishes.
- Give yourself comfort in a healthy way. Emotional eating is the result of unpleasant emotions, as we discussed above. Turning to food may make us feel good and release “happy chemicals” (neurotransmitters like endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin), but these are temporary boosts of good feeling, and aren’t really solving the underlying issue. So go back to #1, where you figured out what the true issue was, and see what you can do to alleviate it. For example, if you’re feeling lonely, text a friend or schedule a coffee date. If you’re seeking comfort or feeling a lack of care, take a bath or paint your nails. Of course, these things won’t work if you have 30 seconds in between meetings, but making time for them when possible will go a long way towards eliminating the actual cause of emotional eating.
- Know your triggers, and set your environment up for success. If your emotional eating tends to happen at your desk, it’s a good idea not to keep your stash of candy or chips in your top desk drawer. If it tends to happen in transition, such as when you get off of work and are likely to drive through a fast food window, it’s a good idea to keep a healthy snack or two in your car. If it tends to happen on a Friday night at home alone after a tough week, it’s a good idea to schedule plans with friends immediately after work on Fridays. Whatever your individual triggers are, know them, and set your environment up for success.
- Celebrate something you did for your health today. Remember that emotional eating tends to stem from a lack of positive feelings, and a need for comfort. Well, one easy way to neutralize the uncomfortable feelings is to consciously think about positive things! Even on the toughest days, there is always something to celebrate. And if you celebrate something you did (rather than something that “just happened”), you’ll feel more empowered and committed to your health. So when the craving for donuts strikes, remember the fact that you woke up at 5am to get in your workout, or that you chose the roasted broccoli over the French fries at lunch. Doesn’t that feel good?
- Stop dieting. Stop beating yourself up. Be kind to yourself. This one may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s the most important of the entire list. So often, we’re incredibly negative to ourselves (see this post on negative self-talk), and thoughts like “you can’t have that,” “you’re awful if you eat too much chocolate,” or “I can’t believe you did that” just make us feel like throwing in the towel on our health goals. Plus, the dieting mentality of trying to restrict food as much as possible often leads you plan old hungry, which throws your blood sugar off balance and leads to even more cravings. So treat your body well, fuel it with plenty of healthy and delicious food, and be kind to yourself. An extra fun size candy is not going to be the end of the world, so give yourself some grace and love. You’re doing great!
Now it’s your turn … Do you tend to eat emotionally? If so, what are your tips for how to stop emotional eating in its tracks?