Learn to Stop Emotional Eating

A blonde woman sits on a couch with a blanket wrapped around her eating a chocolate glazed donut
Photo: Deagreez/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Cupcakes to soothe anger. Chips to tamp down frustration. Ooey-gooey cheesy dishes to numb hurt feelings. Emotional eating, for sure.

These strategies to deal with negative emotions may work in the short run. Maybe. Possibly. But an unwelcome side effect of emotional eating is that it delays or prevents us from achieving our health goals. And it does nothing to deal with the problems that are truly bugging us.

Learn to Stop Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is very common. And we can learn to stop it. You can learn to stop it. For many people, breaking free of emotional eating takes a lot of hard work. For others, it takes a lot of hard work and the help of a trained psychotherapist. Both biology and psychology are at play, so don’t be shy about seeking help. Here are a few steps to help you shake free from emotional eating.

1. Recognize emotional eating. Record what you eat along with your mood for at least a week or two. Try to identify those thoughts, emotions or behaviors that led to emotional eating.

2. Label your emotions. Experiencing negative emotions isn’t a bad thing. In fact, having negative emotions is normal. But allowing irritation, worry, sadness or loneliness to be the reason that you polish off a bag of salty, crunchy snacks is unhelpful and potentially dangerous. Practice noticing and labeling your emotions. How exactly do you feel? Is it anger, sadness, fear, anxiety, embarrassment? Naming your feelings and observing them without judgment will help you learn about them.

3. Practice non-food coping skills. You already know that I see superpowers in my 5-year-old mutt Benny. He makes me laugh, and he warms my heart. He’s good at playing, and he’s good at cuddling. Spending time with him is one of my usual strategies to soothe myself without calories. You should have an arsenal of coping strategies at the ready for when you need something to help you deal with emotions. A few ideas:

  • listen to soothing or uplifting music
  • chat with a friend
  • buy yourself flowers
  • go for a walk
  • sip soothing, fragrant tea
  • exercise your coloring skills
  • create art
  • practice yoga, meditation or prayer

For more about soothing without food, check out Reset Your Day in 5 Minutes or Less. How you choose to soothe yourself is as individual as you are.

4. Build in food treats. I get some resistance on this strategy, but it may actually be the most important one. Whatever food you reach for when stressed probably has some special meaning to you, and at one time or another, you probably labeled it taboo. Is it chocolate (my favorite food), mac and cheese, pizza, hot-from-the-oven cookies, French fries? Whatever it is, eat some without guilt. Don’t reward yourself with it. That just reaffirms that it’s a “bad food.” Eat it simply because you like the way it tastes. Practice enjoying this favorite food in a reasonable amount, perhaps as part of a balanced meal. In this way, you’re learning that it’s OK to treat yourself and you’re removing the notion of treats as cheats.  We all deserve treats, but cheat days are the wrong mindset.

These four strategies are just a start to help you break free of emotional eating. Please, please, please seek professional help if you struggle quite a bit with this.

A lot of people struggle with emotional eating, negative self-talk and other destructive thoughts. Just know that there is relief for these bad habits.

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Jill Weisenberger
Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND, is a writer, nutrition consultant and speaker with a private practice in Newport News, VA, and is the author of four books, including the bestselling Diabetes Weight Loss – Week by Week and her newest title, Prediabetes: A Complete Guide. Follow her on social media and learn more at jillweisenberger.com.