Emotional eating (or stress eating) is using food to make you feel better—eating to satisfy emotional needs, rather than to satisfy physical hunger. Occasionally using food as a pick me up, a reward, or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism—when your first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re stressed, upset, angry, lonely, exhausted, or bored—you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed.
Emotional hunger can’t be filled with food. Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. And you often feel worse than you did before because of the unnecessary calories you’ve just consumed.
No matter how powerless you feel over food and your feelings, it is possible to make a positive change. You can find healthier ways to deal with your emotions, learn to eat mindfully instead of mindlessly, regain control of your weight, and finally put a stop to emotional eating.
Below are five powerful tools for how to put an end to emotional eating for good. Following these steps takes practice and a little bravery, but if you follow them not only will you stop eating emotionally, but you'll also learn to start enjoying your food — and your life — in a whole new way.
1. Prepare for your next binge by knowing your triggers.
Discover your triggers and strategize. If you know you eat when you’re lonely, plan to call a friend or write in your journal instead. Also, always carry food with you so that you never feel deprived. Emotional eating can be your body’s reaction to feeling deprived, so create new ways to nourish yourself. Stock your fridge with delicious, healthy foods, pack your calendar with exciting things to do, and be disciplined about setting aside time for yourself to relax.
2. Don't abandon yourself.
Emotional eating provides a release from discomfort, providing a momentary sense of pleasure and satisfaction when you’re feeling something you don’t want to feel. Overeating has a numbing, softening effect on our unwanted sentiments, and takes our attention away from them. The key to ending this pattern is to not abandon yourself when your emotions go awry, but instead to invite them in and allow yourself to feel.
Tell yourself that it's OK to feel sad, mad, scared, tired — you name it. Welcome your negative emotions with kindness and curiosity, and ask them what they want from you. This includes those intense feelings of guilt or anger that tend to follow an emotional eating episode. Approach your feelings with kindness, and your body will begin to understand that it no longer has to overeat to protect you from your feelings. Plus, through listening to your emotions, you’ll discover what it is you truly want, and can create new strategies for deeper satisfaction.
3. Take a 15-minute walk.
When the urge to eat out of stress, boredom, sadness, or another emotion hits, head outside and go for a walk or run. Exercise releases endorphins that can stimulate relaxation, and the fresh air is also a natural stress reducer. Walking for just 15 minutes can curb cravings for sugary snacks, according to one Austrian study.
4. Don't skip meals.
Good nutrition is incredibly important for stress management—just consider the fact that people who consume inadequate amounts of magnesium (which is most of us) may experience increased sugar cravings. But it's hard to get all the nutrients you need if you skip meals. Skipping meals causes dips in blood sugar that can lead to cravings and make stress eating that much more likely to occur.
If your schedule is unavoidably hectic, make a bunch of pre-portioned healthy snacks that can sub for a larger sit-down meal—think almonds and raisins, plain yogurt, fresh fruit, individually portioned 1-ounce cheeses and whole grain crackers—and have them at the ready so they're as convenient for you to eat as chips, pretzels, candies, cake, and doughnuts.
5. Reduce stress
Being on a diet is stressful. If you are the type of person who succumbs to pressure and emotionally overeats, you’ll need to de-stress. Try some relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, or even just chilling by the pool. Watch a funny movie; laughter really is the best medicine. Stress triggers junk food cravings and releases the hormone cortisol, which stores fat in your body! Aim to stay happy and relaxed.
Unhealthy overeating can stem from emotions that don’t serve you. The good news is you are in control of your emotions. Determine your emotional triggers, look out for those triggers and take charge over your mind and body. Achieving mastery over your emotions is a learned skill; with practice, you will get better and better at it. That will then show up in the way you feel and the way you look.
A serial entrepreneur and former financial advisor, Jean Titus discovered his purpose and passion through the heartache of losing loved ones far too early. He lives his mantra – “We rise by lifting others” – daily as a life coach and Personal Trainer. Jean brings a simplicity and practicality to his work, helping clients draw on their strengths to realize the one thing money can’t buy – good health and wellness. Follow him on Instagram and his fitness journey!