March 18, 2019
How to Stop Emotional Eating: 10+ Ways to Make Peace with Food
Written by Rachel Eddins
You are what you eat.
We all know this cliché and, needless to say, the food we choose to ingest is important. What we eat is essential but what about how we eat?
How much? How often? And yes, how quickly? This brings us to why we eat. And how do we stop emotional eating? Exploring the how and why now is necessary for overcoming emotional eating.
So, Why Do We Eat?
Of course, we eat because we’re hungry. We eat for the nutritional value. In some cases, we eat to indulge a craving for a particular taste. Most of us have times when we eat in a misguided attempt to solve an unrelated problem.
Food comforts us. The act of eating calms and/or distracts us. If and when this situation becomes the norm, we can add a new problem to our list: how to stop emotional eating.
Food is Distraction or Reward
Virtually all of us have been conditioned to view food not as nourishment but instead as a distraction or reward. As babies, we got a bottle when we cried. Over time, we were taught to anticipate dessert as a prize — something far more exciting than any main course.
Now, in adulthood, our upbringing makes us easy targets for modern-day perceptions. Slowly but surely, eating has been transformed by our culture. From fast food to instant meals to a few taps on an app, we are so emotionally detached from the process.
All of the above adds up to an unhealthy relationship with food and eating.
- We eat to quiet fears, calm anxiety, reinforce a self-image, and to replace that bottle that once made everything feel better.
- We eat to feel good.
- Our diets are filled with empty calories.
- We eat too much or too often.
- We feel a loss of control around food.
- Chewing appears to now be optional as we practically inhale our food.
However, you can learn strategies to stop emotional eating and create balance with food.
What is Emotional Eating?
Have you ever used food to try making yourself feel better? Do you sometimes eat when you’re not physically hungry? Does eating feel to you like a way to satisfy emotional needs? Or maybe you’ve eaten to cope with stress, loneliness, or simply to procrastinate or avoid a situation at hand? You might even feel that you are never satisfied with food.
If you answered “yes” to any (or all) of these questions, you’re familiar with emotional eating. Emotional eating is common and not generally a concern if it is one of many coping strategies. Things can become problematic however if emotional eating is your primary or only coping strategy for stress and discomfort. Overcoming emotional eating can be daunting.
We may engage in stress eating for many reasons but, in general, this behavior falls into two broad categories:
- Avoidant Coping: Rather than dealing with a problem, avoidant coping instead involves eating when you are stressed.
- Emotion-Focused Coping: This approach sees us addressing an emotion provoked by a stressor rather than focusing on the actual stressor. In other words, you comfort your hurt by eating so-called “comfort food.”
How Do You Stop Emotional Eating or Compulsive Eating?
Emotional eating / compulsive eating usually involves a powerful urge. This urge can remain quite compelling unless and until we are able to put a space between it and the action of eating.
Getting help to stop emotional eating begins with learning how to pause.
- Start small by first noticing that the urge or craving is there. Interrupt the pattern of automatically responding.
- Next notice the urge and pause to take a few deep breaths. Slow down.
- Check in with your body and ask, “Am I hungry?’
- Determine whether or not you have physical hunger or emotional hunger.
- If hungry, ask, “What does my body need?” Notice it’s not a should.
- Explore whether you are meal hungry or snack hungry.
- Differentiate between craving and hunger.
- Identify satisfying options. Celery alone isn’t a fulfilling snack, but celery and peanut butter is.
- Balance carbs with protein to stay satisfied.
- If not hungry, gradually increase the pause in between urge and action to 15 minutes.
- Ask, “What do I need?” Explore physical needs – to get up and move around, need to take a break, emotional needs, coping needs, etc.
- Move your body, stretch, get up and walk around.
- Attempt to meet your need or focus on something else until you are able to meet your need
- Provide soothing and grounding if needed
You may still choose to follow your craving, and if so, don’t shame yourself for that. “Comfort food” like ice cream, fried food, or cake are what most people would reach for first. Perhaps you can make healthier options more readily available. And if you choose comfort foods, then make your decision consciously so you have permission vs guilt.
Recognize that by slowing down and adding a pause you are beginning to stop emotional eating. First you break the habit, then identify your triggers and ultimately meet your true need.
10+ Strategies to Stop Emotional Eating
Try implementing one or more of the following strategies to help you overcome emotional eating. Once you begin to address underlying triggers and causes of emotional eating, adding a pause and changing habits and behaviors is more manageable.
1. Break free of scarcity mentality and black and white thinking.
Do you find yourself fearing that there won’t be enough for you? Have you conditioned yourself to feel deprived by yo-yo dieting? Do you maintain a scarcity mentality for yourself by not keeping enough gas in the car, or buying the cheaper ___ when you could afford a slightly nicer one?
Do you buy into the mentality that you’re somehow flawed or undeserving? These are all signs of black and white thinking and living with the scarcity mentality.
The scarcity mentality will keep you feeling anxious, deprived, and hungry for more! These can all be triggers for compulsive eating or binge eating.
An abundance mentality assures you that you are enough and that there will be enough for you. Of course, this is a very complex process. To begin with, start by noticing when you’re in the trap of black and white thinking. If yes, check in with yourself and identify what is true?
You can adjust your behaviors to create abundance around you. For example, keeping gas in your car, cash in your wallet, a variety of groceries in the refrigerator, and a variety of clothes that fit comfortably in your closet.
2. Honor your hunger and fullness and eat foods that satisfy you.
Honoring your body’s needs keeps you from feeling deprived and triggering the voracious appetite of primal hunger. Next time you have the urge to eat, identify whether you have emotional or physical hunger. If physical, then determine whether it’s meal or snack hunger and feed yourself accordingly.
Overcoming emotional eating may actually mean that you need to eat more, just balanced throughout the day.
Check in and ask yourself, what am I really hungry for? Is it salty, sweet, cold, warm, crunchy, creamy, smooth? Find foods that are a match with your physical hunger so that you feel satisfied.
Know which foods keep you feeling full longer than others. If you feel lethargic or fatigued after a meal, pay attention to what and how much you ate. You may have eaten past fullness or eaten foods that were imbalanced. You should still have energy after eating a meal.
Watch out for fat phobia. Healthy fats combined with protein help us to stay full longer.
Respect your body’s hunger cues and tune in to what your body is truly hungry for (this refers to stomach hunger, not head hunger!).
Practice Mindful Eating
Mindfulness is a method of staying in the present moment. Many people — with or without emotional eating issues — do not focus on their food during meals. This becomes a bigger problem during stress eating.
Stay present with your feelings. Identify your emotional eating triggers. This is a great method for overcoming emotional eating.
3. Maintain a regular self-care routine.
Become the best version of you. In this state, you are better prepared to deal with compulsive eating cravings or urges. Get help for medical conditions you may be dealing with.
Honor your body. Rather than sticking to black and white routines and schedules, set yourself up for success by connecting with your body and intuitively responding to its needs for fuel, rest, and so forth.
The more in tune you are with your body’s signals, the greater the likelihood that you will respond appropriately and manage healthy lifestyle changes long-term.
Guard your sleep
Starting with your sleep schedule, it should be in your best interest to get as much sleep as your body needs. Adequate sleep is in fact the first step to overcome emotional eating. Fatigue can trigger physical cravings for food, even if you have already eaten.
Start by looking into the different types of sleep disorders and learning the basics. Watch what you eat and drink before bed, create a soothing sleeping environment, or even try meditating to calm your inner-thoughts before you sleep.
Read these strategies to improve your sleep.
Introducing (or continuing) an exercise routine into your daily life can help you boost your self-esteem. Not only does working out give you the physical benefits of improving your body, but it also can boost your mentality.
A gym visit can offer you a challenge and can be a great way to escape your home or daily life for an hour or two to get your mind off things.
Experiment with different ways of moving your body and discover what feels right for you. Stretch, dance in your living room, walk your dog. For this week, make a commitment to try just 5 minutes of movement for as many days as you like. Keep it simple.
Embrace your body image
Wear comfortable clothes that fit. Experiment with new styles and colors.
Read more: try these exercises to improve your body image.
4. Meet your basic needs.
Sometimes we hunger for something that isn’t related to food. That can be an indication that our basic needs aren’t being met. When needs aren’t met in one area of your life, it’s much more difficult to take care of your needs in another area of your life.
Or, food fills our needs such as with pleasure. What’s needed to stop emotional eating are new or multiple ways to meet those needs.
Here are some examples of needs:
- Meaning and purpose
- Autonomy (independence)
- Sustenance (food, nourishment for mind, body, and spirit)
Use these lists to identify your needs.
5. Discover your emotional eating triggers.
There are common, general triggers, e.g. stress, fear, anxiety, and anger. But each of us engages in emotional eating for our own unique reasons. Identifying these triggers can go a long way in controlling urges and stopping emotional eating.
Notice your deprivation rebellion. When are you most likely to overeat, eat when you’re not hungry, etc? What are your physical, mental, and emotional triggers? Get to know what sets you off so you’re less likely to fall into those traps again. Check in with what you’re feeling and ask yourself what you really need.
Stress is inevitable. How you deal with it is not. If you seek comfort at times, it doesn’t have to food-related.
Read more: ways to calm and soothe yourself when stressed
Join a New Rewards Program
Using sweets or junk food to reward yourself is not working. What healthy prizes can you use instead?
Turn Off Your Devices
Your smartphone may distract you from focusing on the sensual pleasure of slowly enjoying your meals.
6. Keep a journal or mood and food diary.
Often, our stress levels follow predictable patterns. How we manage stress is also something we can monitor. Keeping a written record assists with healing and will come in handy during therapy.
Be consistent and honest. This one can be a real wake-up call.
Keep track of what you eat throughout the day, how you felt beforehand as well as your hunger levels before and after. This can give you some insights into common patterns in your eating behavior. You can learn how to stop emotional eating by recognizing your triggers and creating new strategies to cope with or prevent them.
7. Accept emotions versus avoiding them.
Connect with your emotions. Even when you are feeling upset.
Don’t be afraid to feel what you feel. The lifespan of typical emotions is very short. It’s only when we don’t acknowledge them that they build up and we use food to manage their intensity.
Tune in and slow down to identify your feelings whether before or after you’ve reacted to them. Oftentimes, we’re driven to move away from uncomfortable feelings with whatever strategies we can, which includes numbing them with food.
This creates a build up of intensity that either blows up or come out sideways in the form of increased appetite, urges to binge eat, or physical symptoms such as anxiety, migraines, or illnesses.
When emotions haven’t been repressed, their lifecycle is rather short, lasting about two minutes. When we can observe and compassionately accept our emotions rather than repress and avoid them, we can find peace and comfort. They dissipate and you are restored to a balanced state.
Read more: 9 ways to cope with emotional pain
8. Practice self-compassion.
Believe it or not, many other people feel exactly the same way you do. We’re all in this together. Each one of us has self-doubt, worry, and a longing to be accepted and understood.
You’re ok. Beating yourself up does nothing but ultimately lead to shame, which can be a powerful trigger for overeating.
Rather, focus on compassion. Compassion does not necessarily mean that you’re “off the hook”. Compassion means you understand. You empathize. You get it.
It makes sense that you feel a certain way given your unique circumstances.
1) acknowledging your pain in a gentle and understanding way,
2) recognizing that you’re not alone in your struggles, and
3) observing your pain without judging or suppressing it.
To make it more effective and soothe the anxiety that might come with an urge to binge eat, place your hand on your heart. This simple act of touch can actually soothe physiologically in a way you might need!
Treat Yourself as You Would Treat a Child
If a child to you seeking nourishment and support, you wouldn’t give them a bag of chips, right? If they felt bad, you would offer comfort and support. What would that sound like? Say it to yourself.
9. Watch out for the Inner Critic!
What does your inner voice say? Focus on creating an inner voice of compassion vs. criticism. Remember, the way you talk to yourself affects how you feel.
Treat yourself compassionately and you’ll find you will be more motivated to engage in loving acts of self-care than if you yell yourself to the gym.
Unchecked, your Inner Critic can deplete your energy and concentration, destroying confidence and denying experiences of joy, satisfaction, or pleasure. This negative inner voice can lead to anxiety, depression, and compulsive eating.
Exercise: Recognizing Your Inner Critic
- Notice statements such as, “you are too…”, “I always…”, “you never…”, “I should…”.
- Ask yourself if this statement would be appropriate to say to a child, or would it sound abusive?
- Step back into mindfulness of the present moment. This is where truth lies. Check in with your body sensations.
- Connect with your physical self, pay attention to your breathing, and feel yourself grounded in your seat with your feet on the floor.
- Notice the emotions that are present. Be curious about what is happening.
- What events, actions, or physical or emotional sensations triggered the Inner Critic?
- Separate what is objectively true from assumptions of the Inner Critic.
- For example, “I ate dessert and now I am feeling very full.” Delete anything afterwards, such as, “I’m so stupid. I can’t get anything right.”
- Ask yourself what you need and nourish yourself if you can.
Learn more about managing your inner critic.
10. Create a support team.
Friends, family, neighbors, co-workers — whoever you can trust can be part of your support system.
For many people that struggle with their emotional or mental health, it can be hard to be social. Leaving the house, communicating with their friends, and even going on social media can be tough. Step outside your comfort zone and get outside and spend time with people you love and that love you.
Relationships are truly priceless, and although it’s nice to take time for yourself, balancing your “me-time” with the time you spend with others can give you the perfect balance to boost your self-esteem and mood.
The people you surround yourself leave an immediate impact on your thoughts and how you view yourself so you must make sure you have a good support system. Try your hardest to seek out the best in people and nurture the love among your closest family and friends; spending time with them will be what ultimately pulls you out of any rut you may fall into.
11. Identify activities that give you a sense of purpose.
Finding purpose doesn’t necessarily mean finding some big, elusive, meaningful thing. Purpose exists in everything we do. Find out what matters to you. Take time to consider truly what your deepest values are.
What do you want your life to stand for? Consider all areas of your life: friends, family, career, health, leisure, and so forth. Once you’ve identified what really matters most to you evaluate your typical day.
What activities support these values? Identify them and choose to have an attitude of purpose (versus resentment) next time you engage in these activities. If much of your day is spent on activities that don’t support your values, it’s time to reevaluate! How can you incorporate one small thing to support your values?
Connect outside of yourself.
This can include connecting with others, nature, animals, children, the elderly, spirituality, or your community. Connection is tied to our basic needs and without it we might feel a deep loneliness or emptiness inside.
Connecting to anything outside yourself counts. This can include growing something in a garden, adopting a pet, volunteering in your community, or trying a new activity.
Read our guide: Food and Fulfillment: Triggers & Strategies for When it Gets Out of Control
Is Therapy on Your Menu?
Eating is a personal experience with emotional roots all the back to our earliest memories. Digging into these factors is great for overcoming emotional eating and keeping it permanently at bay. There is no better way to start this journey than by seeking help.
You Can Ask For Help to Stop Emotional Eating
Struggling with any kind of eating issue does not make you weak or a bad person. Life is very challenging and it’s common for each of us to find ways to cope. If emotional eating has become your coping mechanism, the above suggestions will help. However, studies show that therapy is a proven path to overcome emotional eating.
Participate in our make peace with food group program to go in depth on making lifelong peace with food, mind, body & emotions.
As touched on above, getting help to stop emotional eating requires an examination of root causes. It also involves directly dealing with the behavioral patterns you’ve developed. To put a pause to the urge and shine a light on the cause requires assistance.
At Eddins Counseling Group, in Houston, TX, we have several therapists that specialize in treating emotional eating and other disordered eating habits. Your weekly therapy sessions with us can guide you on this journey in a safe and sustainable manner. Call us at 832-559-2622 or book an appointment online.