Of all the many barriers to healthy eating, emotional eating can be one of the most damaging. Emotional eating refers to eating triggered not by hunger and physiological want, but by emotional and psychological need. Most often, emotional eating is a response to stress, anxiety, or simple unhappiness. Obviously, emotional eating contributes to poor health while doing nothing to solve the underlying emotional problem.
Everyone eats emotionally sometimes — for example, think of the comfort foods that are often eaten after a loved one dies. Emotional eating is only a problem if it becomes a habit, as when food becomes the go-to method for relieving psychological distress. If you think you might be an emotional eater, check out the following nine ways to deal with the problem.
- Slow down. Emotional eating is often a mindless, automatic process. A sudden urge arises, and before you know it you’ve downed a whole bag of chips. Exert self-control by slowing down, stopping, and telling yourself to wait, if only for a few seconds. This should give you time to gather your thoughts and, hopefully, step away from the food.
- Relieve stress. Stress is the most common trigger of emotional binge eating. If you’re life is harried and busy, give yourself permission to relax. Everyone needs a little time in their day when they can unwind. Try taking up tension-alleviating activities like yoga or meditation. Sharing your feelings with people close to you will help too. Exercise has also been show to reduce stress, as has good sleep.
- Watch for the signs of emotional eating. Healthy eating is accompanied by physical signs of hunger. These indicators will be missing if your hunger is only psychological. For example, real hunger arises gradually and is satisfied by many different foods, while emotional hunger is usually sudden, urgent and directed towards one or two favorite foods. While healthy hunger goes away when you’re full, emotional hunger doesn’t wane. Watch out for hunger that appears when you should still be satisfied (such as an hour after lunch).
- Don’t buy problem foods. Emotional eating is often triggered by a craving for certain specific foods. Making these foods unavailable — by never purchasing them in the first place — will help you control your eating. With time, your habit of consuming those foods in a psychologically destructive way will be broken.
- Live healthily. A healthy life will make you happier and psychologically stronger, and so better able to control emotional eating. Getting enough sleep and exercising regularly are especially important. Exercise helps improves mood and has been associated with happiness.
- Deal with psychological issues. Getting rid of the emotional trigger for your healthy eating may solve your problem entirely. While a life free of stress, sadness, and other negative emotions is impossible, mitigating or learning how to handle these feelings is possible. Try seeing a therapist to learn better coping techniques, or to identify the underlying cause of your destructive eating.
- Make your life more interesting. Emotional eating is frequently a product of boredom. If you have nothing to do, emotional binge eating is harder to resist. Taking up a new hobby or joining a club or organization might help. Forming new habits can help you break the destructive routines that fuel your emotional eating.
- Keep a food journal. You may not even be aware of how often you eat emotionally. For a whole week, keep a log of everything you eat. You’ll discover a lot about yourself and your relationship to food. The food journal should also help you identify the triggers of your destructive eating.
- Be aware. Try to remain mindful and in control of all your actions. Oftentimes, emotional eating is done semi-automatically, almost beneath a person’s conscious awareness. Stay in the moment and pay attention to what you’re doing. Exert self-control if you’re tempted to binge.
Remember, emotional eating can’t solve anything. In the moment, you may feel a little better — but that feeling will quickly fade, leaving you with the same misery you felt before. In fact, you’ll probably feel worse, since guilt and shame will be added to your other woes. Since you’ll be happier and healthier without an emotional eating habit, see if the nine tips seen above can help you stop eating emotionally.