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7 Steps to Beat Emotional Eating for Good

In an ideal world, hunger should be the reason we start eating, and fullness should be the reason we stop... but, our relationship with food is way more complicated than that.

We tend to turn to food for comfort, stress relief or even a reward. We create a psychological reliance on food as a coping mechanism for different emotions, but emotional eating never actually fixes our emotional problems - most of the time we feel worse afterwards. The good news is, with the help of different strategies and practice, it is very much possible to overcome stress eating and take back control.

If you are an emotional eater, you may find yourself eating to suppress or soothe unpleasant and negative feelings like stress, anxiety, anger, fear, boredom, sadness or loneliness. You might be using food as a reward, or seeking sweets and unhealthy snacks when something bad happens. Anything from major life events to simply daily annoyances can trigger the negative feelings leading to emotional eating.

The issue is, this solution is very temporary - we are trying to fill an emotional void with food, but as soon as the eating stops, the same emotions will return, and an extra amount of guilt accompanies them, making things even worse.

If this is you, don't worry - you are not alone! Breaking stress eating habits are not easy and take practice, but it's very much possible. Let's see what emotional eating is, where it might be coming from, and what strategies you can use to reduce emotional eating and build healthier eating habits!


Are you affected?

Here are a few quick questions to ask yourself to see if your eating habits are influenced by your emotions:

  • Do you overeat when you are stressed?

  • Do you eat even when you are full or when you are not hungry?

  • Do you eat to make yourself feel better (to calm and comfort yourself when you are upset, irritated, bored, anxious, and so on)?

  • Do you give yourself food as a reward?

  • Do you feel safer when you eat?

  • Do you feel powerless or out of control when it comes to food?

  • Do you have a particular food craving?

If you replied YES to at least three of these questions, you may be trapped in a destructive emotional eating cycle.


Awareness is power

Every one of us is a creature of habit. If you start looking for patterns in your eating habits, eventually you will likely realise that certain events trigger your cravings. When you have a longing for anything unhealthy or find yourself overeating, consider the events that led up to it!

Here are some situations that commonly precede emotional eating:

  • You feel overwhelmed at work/at home

  • You feel exhausted/ don't sleep well

  • You feel lonely, sad, unloved

  • You feel out of control about a family/work situation

  • You are worried, anxious, nervous about something

  • You feel like a failure

  • You are bored

If you find a continuous pattern of cravings following one or more of these events, you have a very powerful tool in your hand, as recognising your triggers is the first step on the way to attend to these triggers with different strategies that will help you move away from food as a solution. A food-mood journal described below, can be a very efficient way to learn what drives your emotional eating habits.


Physical vs psychological hunger

It is very easy to mistake emotional hunger for physical hunger, but there are characteristics that distinguish them. Recognising these subtle differences is an important step to breaking emotional eating patterns.

Physical hunger

Psychological hunger

​Increases gradually

Makes a sudden appearance

An apple would do

You crave a certain type of food, often junk food, sweets, salty snacks (tends not to be an apple)

Can wait for food (“I need to have something to eat soon”)

Want food now; sense of urgency, panic

A response to your body’s definite need (i.e. rumbling tummy)

Directly follows a feeling; upset, bored, tired etc.

A deliberate choice eaten with awareness

Impulsive choice, eaten quickly. You may not even taste the food

Sense of satisfaction after eating

You still want more, or a different type of food e.g. sweet after salty

No guilt

Lots of guilt and promises about next time


Strategies to overcome emotional eating

# 1 - Ask the right questions

When you get hit by an uncontrollable craving or want to go back for seconds (or thirds), pause for a moment and answer the following questions:

  • Am I truly hungry?

  • Am I tired?

  • Am I thirsty?

  • Am I bored?

  • Am I lonely?

  • Am I feeling bad about myself or about something else?

  • Am I avoiding something or seeking a distraction?

To successfully stop stress eating, you must first modify your connection with food by determining what you are truly craving. Chances are that what you actually want is something besides food. After you identify the real issue, you can start to find ways to satisfy what you really need instead of medicating yourself with stress eating.

# 2 - Write a Food-Mood Journal

A food-mood journal can be a very efficient way to learn your triggers. The first step toward overcoming emotional eating is to gain a better understanding of why it occurs. Make a note of your mood each time you eat in your food journal. You will be able to identify instances of emotional eating as a result of this. Determine how frequently you eat in negative moods, what time of day, which days of the week, and what foods you eat. This will provide you with insight into your tendencies and help you determine when to employ the following tactics.

Here is a simple template you can use for journaling!

Download PDF • 77KB

# 3 - Use the Hunger Scale

The hunger scale teaches you to listen to your body and can help you to know when to start and stop eating. With practice, you will be able to manage your hunger, feel more in control of your eating habits, and enjoy your meals mindfully.

Here is how it works: next time you get ready to eat, scale your hunger. The hunger scale is a rating from 0 to 10 of how hungry you truly are. 0 relates to the most hungry you could possibly be, while 10 is as full as you have ever been. Ideally, you want to fall into the 4-6 zone, without major swings one way or the other. If you find yourself feeling SO HUNGRY before each meal, maybe consider eating earlier or incorporating a snack. If you're not hungry at all before meals but still feel the need to eat, ask yourself why and try answering the questions we detailed above.

If you need a little extra help to define your hunger on the scale, here is a printable version:

Download PDF • 76KB

# 4 - Slow Down

Eating slowly and mindfully has numerous benefits. It has been proven to reduce stress eating and bingeing, aids digestion, improves self-control around food and it also helps us to get more nutrients from what we eat.

You can experience the benefits of mindful eating almost immediately, so if you give it a shot, a few simple exercises can make a true difference in how you feel. Here are a few to incorporate into your daily routine:

  • Look at your food

  • Smell it and notice the colors

  • Chew every bite 15-30 times before swallowing

  • Notice the texture of your food

  • Put down your fork between bites

Want to learn more about the science behind Mindful Eating and how to adopt it? Have a look at this article I published:

# 5 - Change your Reward System

The goal is to find strategies to cope with bad emotions that do not exaggerate them, as excessive eating and drinking may. Removing food from your reward system and replacing it with more meaningful pursuits is one of the key steps to success.

Exercising, taking a bath, or talking with a supportive friend are all examples of good coping mechanisms. When contemplating a new plan, ask yourself, "Will this make me feel better right now?" and "Will this make me feel better tomorrow?" If you can answer 'yes' to both questions, you have a healthy coping method.

Here is a brief list of some healthier activities that you can turn to when you catch yourself trying to cope with an emotion using food:

  • Go outside. Walk around a bit and really notice your surroundings. Be present and notice how the air feels on your skin, pay attention to your breathing.

  • Move - exercise is a great way to distract your mind and relieve some tension. Even a 10 minutes yoga session at your desk can mean a difference in your mental state.

  • Make a gratitude list – what are you thankful for?

  • Make a list of things to talk about with your partner, therapist, or best friend.

  • Write a list of 3 things you admire about yourself. Or if you have a partner, write a list about him or her.

  • Play with your pet.

  • Phone a friend or family member to catch up.

  • Do a puzzle, Sudoku, or play chess or scrabble on the computer – keep your brain occupied!

  • Make a list of movies you want to see or books you want to read.

# 6 - Eliminate the culprits

You can't eat what you don't have! Sounds like a no-brainer, but it must still be handled. Sugar and other junk food must be kept out of the house and out of sight at work.

Don't buy it, don't keep it in the pantry, don't keep it in your purse or car, and don't have a candy stash in your desk drawer.

Go through your pantry, refrigerator, and drawers and discard or give away any candy, cookies, pastries, sugared cereal, sodas, fruit drinks, cakes, or other garbage food.

Don't attract temptation, and make it simple to make wise decisions. Don't make yourself choose between veggies and ice cream every night!

# 7 - Practice forgiveness

One bad choice doesn’t ruin everything! Sometimes we all make a less-than-smart decision, but that doesn't mean you are done for good and it's a lost cause. When you fall off the wagon, use these steps to get right back on track:

  1. State what you did without judging, exaggerating, or catastrophising. Just the facts here – something like “I ate a large back of crisps,” or “I ate a bag of M&Ms.”

  2. State why you did it. This one can be hard because you have to look past any story that you told yourself, and reveal the truth. The excuse you use may be, “I didn't have time to eat something healthy.” The real truth is, "I was hungry, and I didn't bring any good food with me, so I decided I would rather pick up some crisps than stay hungry."

  3. State what you intend to do next time. “Tomorrow I will bring a healthy snack to work.”

Healthy eating is an ongoing series of small decisions, so when you make a bad decision, it's important to be able to get over it and go back to making better choices without any guilt, shame or regret. Beating yourself up only makes it more difficult to break the cycle, as you can - again - use food as punishment. This method of practicing forgiveness in a non-judgemental way will allow you to adopt a healthier mindset and change your relationship with food.


Bottom Line

Whatever emotions motivate you to overeat or snack uncontrollably, the results are often the same. The effect is only brief; your emotions will return, and you will most likely face the additional load of guilt for failing to control yourself. Emotional hunger is never satisfied by food. While filling up may be effective in short term, eating due to negative emotions frequently leaves us feeling even more disturbed than we were before.

It takes time and practice to change your mindset from reaching for food automatically to engaging in other forms of stress release, so try out different strategies to see what works best for you!

Although it can be very challenging to break unhelpful habits and replace them with healthier ones, it's extremely rewarding and leads to a healthier, happier life. If you need some support to get started, book an appointment with me and let's discuss how I can help you!


Sources & Further Reading

Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat: Mindful Eating: A Review Of How The Stress-Digestion-Mindfulness Triad May Modulate and Improve Gastrointestinal And Digestive Function: Eating when bored: revision of the emotional eating scale with a focus on boredom: Eating attentively: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of food intake memory and awareness on eating: López-galán B, De-magistris T. Testing emotional eating style in relation to willingness to pay for nutritional claims. Nutrients. 2019;11(8). doi:10.3390/nu11081773

Järvelä-reijonen E, Karhunen L, Sairanen E, et al. The effects of acceptance and commitment therapy on eating behavior and diet delivered through face-to-face contact and a mobile app: a randomized controlled trial. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2018;15(1):22. doi:10.1186/s12966-018-0654-8

Chao A, Grey M, Whittemore R, Reuning-scherer J, Grilo CM, Sinha R. Examining the mediating roles of binge eating and emotional eating in the relationships between stress and metabolic abnormalities. J Behav Med. 2016;39(2):320-32. doi:10.1007/s10865-015-9699-1


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