Emotional eating means turning to food for comfort -- not because you’re hungry. That bag of potato chips and those chocolate chip cookies may provide short-term relief when you’re feeling bored, lonely, anxious, frustrated, depressed, angry, or stressed. But emotional eating can also lead to overeating and unwanted weight gain. Experts estimate that 75% of overeating is a response to emotions.
The good news is that you can learn skills and alternative ways to cope with feelings of emotional distress so that you’re not reaching for unhealthy foods whenever you’re faced with a negative feeling.
Identify Your Eating Triggers
When you know what situations and emotions prompt you to eat, you can come up with ways to steer clear of those traps. These food triggers will typically fall into five main categories.
- Social: Being encouraged by others to eat, or eating to fit in
- Emotional: Eating in response to unpleasant feelings, like fatigue and anxiety, or to fill the void due to loneliness
- Thoughts: Eating because of a negative self-image
- Situational: Eating because the opportunity is there, like when you see a food advertised or when you pass a bakery. You might also eat whenever you do certain activities, like going to the movies or watching TV.
- Physiological: Eating in response to physical cues, such as a headache or an appetite increased because you skipped a meal
To find out what your triggers are, keep a food diary to write down what and when you eat as well as what stressors, thoughts, or emotions you experience as you eat. You should begin to see patterns fairly quickly.
How to Stop Emotional Eating
By the time you’ve identified a pattern, emotional eating has become a habit. Now you want to break that habit.
- When you start to reach for food in response to an eating trigger, try one of the following activities instead.
- Read a good book or magazine, or listen to music.
- Go for a walk or jog.
- Take a bubble bath.
- Do deep breathing exercises.
- Play cards or a board game.
- Talk to a friend.
- Do housework, laundry, or yard work.
- Wash the car.
- Write a letter.
- Do any other pleasurable or necessary activity until the urge to eat passes.
Sometimes developing alternative habits or distracting yourself from eating isn’t enough. Try meditation or counseling, or talk to your doctor to see what resources and techniques they recommend to help you cope with emotional stress.
As you learn to practice better coping strategies and to curb emotional eating, remember to reward yourself. By patting yourself on the back for a job well done, you increase the likelihood that you’ll maintain your new healthy habits.