5 Tips to Curb — Or Embrace — Emotional Eating

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Have you ever wondered why so many people crave sugar and sweets when they are feeling down? Or perhaps why people reach for snacks after they have eaten a balanced, satisfying dinner? Or why some people find themselves overeating at a summer BBQ? These are just a few examples of emotional eating.

Emotional eating can have many definitions but usually means that a person eats food out of an emotional response, and not necessarily out of true biological hunger. Examples may include eating ice cream on a hot, summer day after passing by a local ice cream shop or eating popcorn after dinner while watching a movie. But emotional eating can also mean eating potato chips out of a large bag while “zoning out” or eating a larger-than-expected portion at a meal because the food tastes so good.

Many people automatically think emotional eating is a shameful habit. But take a look above at those examples of emotional eating — not all of them are problematic! Food is meant to be pleasurable and not all eating has to be “perfect” and out of hunger. Part of creating an individualized meal structure for yourself includes knowing how to be flexible in your eating patterns.

Many people, however, do report that emotional eating is problematic when it gets in the way of their nutrition goals. Maybe someone is trying to work on hunger and fullness cues and emotional eating is preventing them from feeling hunger. Or maybe someone has a specific goal related to medical nutrition therapy — for example, lowering sodium intake — and emotional eating is causing an increase rather than a decrease.

How do we transform emotional eating to be something more positive than negative?  Here are my 5 tips:

Step Back and Assess Your Environment

When emotional eating happens, think about and evaluate your feelings. Is it during certain times of the day? Weekends? Only out and never in your house? Or always in your house and never out? Take note of when and where it happens, and then you can plan accordingly when to be a little more mindful.

Take Inventory of Your Feelings

Are you feeling sad? Lonely? Bored? Happy? Think about the best way to resolve these feelings and use coping skills that are directed to each feeling — for example, calling a friend when you feel bored. Yes, sometimes food does help! But it’s often not getting to the root of the issue.

Give Yourself Distractions

If it’s not possible to determine the best course of action for your feelings, plan to distract yourself. Create a list of distractions that allow you to sidetrack from your feelings and do something else rather than use food.

Track Hunger and Fullness

To the best of your ability, note when you’re eating in response to hunger and when you eat in response to emotion. One of the best tips is to eat a meal or snack every few hours — this will keep your metabolism fired up and your appetite hormones in check.

Have Self-compassion

Remember it’s normal to eat emotionally! You just want to find ways to do this that work for you. Maybe chocolate is your favorite dessert, or you love chips and pretzels and love to snack on them after dinner. Embrace this emotional eating and know that including favorite foods is a necessary component of overall health and wellbeing.

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Jennifer McGurk
Jennifer McGurk, RDN, CDN, CDE, CEDRD, is a New York-based registered dietitian nutritionist whose mission is to help people heal from diets and find peace and balance with their food choices. She is the owner of Eat With Knowledge and, as a Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian, Jennifer combines her expertise in medical nutrition therapy, psychology and physiology to help clients understand their eating behaviors and gain the insight needed to make positive changes for their health.