Emotional eating can sabotage your weight loss efforts. Emotional or comfort eating often leads to eating too much, especially with regards to high-calorie, sweet and fatty foods. The good news is that if you’re prone to emotional eating, you can take steps to regain control of your eating habits and get back on track with your weight loss goals.
Sometimes the strongest food cravings hit when you are at your weakest point emotionally. You may turn to food for comfort (consciously or unconsciously) when facing a difficult problem, feeling stressed or even feeling bored.
Emotional eating is eating as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness. Major life events or, even more commonly, the hassles of everyday life can trigger negative emotions that lead to emotional eating. These triggers can include:
- Relationship conflicts (family, friends, coworkers)
- Work or other stressors
- Financial pressures
- Health problems
Although there are some people who lose their appetite in the face of strong emotions, a great deal of our patients turn to impulsive eating or binge eating (eating so much at one time that you feel as though you are out of control or embarrassed about how much you are eating).
In fact, your emotions can become so tied to your eating habits that you automatically reach for a treat whenever you’re angry or stressed without really thinking about what you’re doing (mindless eating).
Food also serves as a distraction. If you’re worried about an upcoming event or upset over a conflict, for example, you may focus on eating comfort food instead of dealing with the painful situation.
Whatever emotions drive you to overeat, the end result is often the same. The effect of the impulsive eating is temporary, the uncomfortable emotions return and you likely then have the additional burden of guilt about setting back your weight-loss goal. This can also lead to an unhealthy cycle — your emotions trigger you to overeat, you beat yourself up for getting off your weight loss track, you feel bad and you overeat again.
How do you get back on track?
When negative emotions threaten to trigger emotional eating, you can take steps to control cravings. To help stop emotional eating, try these tips:
- Keep a food diary. Write down what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how you’re feeling when you eat and how hungry you are. Over time, you might see patterns that reveal the connection between mood and food.
- Tame your stress. If stress contributes to your emotional eating, try a stress management technique, such as yoga, meditation or deep breathing. Try to deal with that which stresses you out.
- Have a hunger reality check. Is your hunger physical or emotional? If you ate just a few hours ago and don’t have a rumbling stomach, you’re probably not hungry. Give the craving time to pass. If it is true hunger, any food will satiate you versus needing to give in to a particular craving.
- Get support. You’re more likely to give in to emotional eating if you lack a good support network. Lean on family and friends or consider joining our support group meetings.
- Fight boredom. Instead of snacking when you’re not hungry, distract yourself and substitute a healthier behavior. Take a walk, watch a movie, color or paint, play with your dog, listen to music, read, surf the internet or call a friend.
- Take away temptation. Do not keep your comfort foods in your home. If you are feeling angry or sad, postpone your trip to the grocery store until you have your emotions in check. Use online grocery delivery options so you are not tempted to buy something that is not on your list.
- Snack healthy. If you feel the urge to eat between meals, choose a healthy snack, such as fresh vegetables with low-fat dip, pickles, Whisps, sugar-free popsicles or sugar-free jell-o.
- Learn from setbacks. If you have an episode of emotional eating, forgive yourself and start fresh the next meal. Don’t wait till the next day, start again at the next meal! Try to learn from the experience and make a plan for how you can prevent it in the future. Focus on the positive changes you’re making in your eating habits and give yourself credit for making changes that’ll lead to better health.
When to seek professional help
If you’ve tried all of these options but you still struggle with controlling emotional eating, consider therapy with a mental health professional. Therapy can help you understand why you eat emotionally and learn additional coping skills.
Written by: Urmi Jani, PSY-D