How to Curb Emotional Eating
Get healthier with simple strategies for more mindful eating.
July 23, 2021
Most adults experience occasional or even chronic stress. If you’re the type to turn to food when you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed out, odds are you’re an emotional eater. Clinicians define emotional eating as consuming food when you’re not hungry, but instead as a result of how you’re feeling. Here’s how to regain control of your cravings.
Why you should care
If you’re regularly turning to foods high in fat or sugar as a way to cope with stress, you may feel better in the short-term. However, the long-term effects can be serious: higher blood sugar levels and increased risks of obesity, heart disease, and stroke. While stress is never going to go away completely, finding ways to cope that don’t involve turning to food will ultimately improve your health considerably.
What the science says: Emotional eating can result from negative emotions or very happy feelings that trigger the desire to “celebrate” with food.
There’s a reason why that carton of ice cream or bowl of pasta is so satisfying. A Harvard health article explains that parts of our brain light up and feel rewarded when we consume foods high in fat and sugar. That positive emotional response, in turn, creates a connection between sugary, fatty foods and feeling good. Thus, the next time you’re feeling crummy or overjoyed, you may turn to your tried-and-true feel-good meals that provide either momentary relief or a heightened experience. And just like that, you’ve unknowingly started the cycle of eating unhealthy foods as an emotional response to whatever you may be dealing with.
That said, there are times when you’re actually hungry. To determine if you’re eating because your body actually needs fuel or is responding to an emotional cue, it is important to understand a few key differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger:
The three characteristics of physical hunger:
- Hunger cues gradually grow stronger.
- You’re not pulled only to foods high in fat and sugar (you might actually crave healthier options when you’re physically hungry).
- You eventually feel full and stop eating.
The three characteristics of emotional hunger:
- Hunger cues come on suddenly.
- You mostly crave your go-to comfort foods (which are likely high in fat and sugar).
- You don’t feel full, so you keep eating.
Evidence-backed solutions: In order to combat emotional eating, you have to reprogram your response to stress. Here are a few smart strategies to get you started:
- Take note of your triggers. Keep a food journal for a few weeks and write down what you eat and when. Take note of anything that triggers you to reach for certain foods over others. If you pack a healthy lunch with the best intentions, but spring for a slice of pizza at the last minute after a stressful meeting with your boss, write that down. If you find yourself snacking more ahead of a big deadline or a high-stakes meeting, jot that down, too. Or, does a chat with your anxiety-inducing sister have you mindlessly downing cookies just to make it through the call? In order to take control of emotional eating, you first need a deep understanding of what’s triggering it.
- Practice mindfulness. Once you understand your triggers, you’ll be better positioned to develop the habit of eating mindfully, which can help rein in emotional eating. Other mindfulness practices, such as meditation, have been shown to be effective at curbing binge eating and emotional eating, as summarized in a research review.
- Develop stress-busting habits. Food isn’t the only way to combat stress. Find other ways that work for you. Make a list of things you do that dial down stress—like a favorite workout class, a friend on speed dial, or a good book—so you can have a go-to list to pull from when your stress meter is ratcheting up.
- Reduce temptation. One of the easiest ways to tamp down emotional eating is to keep sugary, fatty foods out of reach. Skip buying these foods and instead stock only healthier snack options in your pantry. And don’t store your credit card information in food delivery apps that can lead to one-click binges; (better yet, remove those apps from your phone all together).
- Try therapy. One study found that eating in response to negative emotions may be one of the main reasons dieters regain weight. The researchers report: “The association of eating in response to negative emotions (EE) with depression and poor emotion regulation skills suggests that the treatment of obese people with high EE should not focus on calorie-restricted diets but on emotion regulation skills.” In other words, getting help dealing with your emotions may be a smarter way to combat emotional eating than just putting yourself on a strict diet. Cognitive behavioral therapy, in which you work with a professional to break patterns in negative thinking, has been shown to be particularly useful. By changing how you “talk” to yourself (“I deserve that treat”), you can help create healthier thought patterns (“Some fresh air is what I really need right now”).
- Cut yourself some slack. Indulging to celebrate a special occasion or when major life stressors become too much will happen—and that’s OK. Don’t beat yourself up. Instead, find ways to allow little indulgences in your diet so you don’t feel deprived. Occasional treats, in moderation, can be part of a healthy lifestyle as long as you’re not using the food as an emotional Band-Aid.
If you’re a lifelong emotional eater, you may be putting yourself at greater risk for health problems such as heart disease and stroke. To live healthier, start with some clear and simple strategies that will allow you to deal with the underlying root cause: your stress response. Once you’re in better control of managing your stress, you’ll be more equipped to effectively sideline the domino effect of emotional eating.