Featured Articles, Mental Health

Freedom from Emotional Eating: A How-To Guide

Do you find yourself reaching for a fatty or sugary snack every time you feel sad, anxious, angry, or stressed? You’re not alone. Many people deal with their feelings through food. If you want to find better ways of coping and finally gain freedom from emotional eating, you’re also not alone. Check out these tips for avoiding triggers, fighting food cravings, and finding better ways to cope with your feelings.

What is Emotional Eating and Do You Do it?

People deal with their problems in myriad ways. Some people smoke, others drink too much, sleep too much, or do any number of other unhelpful and potentially unhealthy actions. Emotions are normal, and it’s human nature to look outside ourselves for things that can make us feel better. But those things aren’t always in our best interests.

Some people reach for comfort foods when they’re feeling sad, angry, lonely, or anxious. Eating, especially eating sugary and fatty foods triggers reward centers in your brain that can temporarily make you feel better, according to Harvard Health. When you engage in a behavior that feels rewarding, you are likely to repeat that behavior over and over again.

However, the rewards are short-lived. Most people who in engage in emotional eating may temporarily get a boost, but they often quickly feel bad again. Now, not only do they still feel the initial emotion, but they may also feel guilt or regret about overeating as well. It’s a double-whammy.

Does this sound familiar? Here are several other “symptoms” that might confirm whether or not you’re an emotional eater:

  • Eating when you’re not hungry or already full
  • Regularly eating until you’re stuffed
  • Rewarding yourself with food
  • Feeling like food is a safe space, a good friend
  • Feeling like you’re out of control around food

Everyone has likely had an episode of emotional eating before. But when this becomes a repeated behavior, or coping mechanism, it may become a disorder which will take some hard work to heal. But it definitely can be done!

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Why Do You Want Freedom From Emotional Eating?

You’re obviously reading this article because you think you might deal with your emotions by eating and overeating comfort foods. Chances are, if you think you do, you do. That’s great! Just by recognizing this habit, you’ve taken the first step towards gaining control.

Now, what it is it that bothers you about this “coping mechanism” you’ve adopted that makes you want to stop? If you’re like most people, it’s because of your health, your weight, and how you feel about yourself in general. You want more control over your life and your decisions.

The fact is that while emotional eating may not be as bad for you as some other coping mechanisms, like drugs and drinking, it can still negatively affect your health and well-being. People who regularly over-indulge in sugary and fatty foods are likely to gain some weight, if not a lot of weight. Carrying excess weight isn’t good for your health and, like drinking and smoking, it can cause many diseases including heart disease and diabetes.

But not being in control of your emotions also affects your self-esteem and confidence. I think, primarily, you’d like freedom from emotional eating so that you feel better about yourself. That’s what most people I coach through emotional eating tell me.

That is as good as any reason to take the steps necessary to overcome this habit. So write it down somewhere you can see it so you don’t forget your “why.”

Tip 1: Learn the Difference Between Physical Hunger and Emotional Hunger

Of course, the goal is not to stop eating or enjoying food! When consumed in moderation and as part of a healthy diet, food is important to your health, and enjoyable.

In order to achieve a healthy balance, it’s important to be able to tell when your body is actually telling you it needs nourishment (physical hunger) and when it’s your emotions telling you they need soothing (emotional hunger). Being able to distinguish these two will be very helpful when you get to tip 3, which is the practice of staying in-tune with your emotions and physical sensations.

Characteristics of physical hunger:

  • Comes on gradually
  • It can wait until you have time to eat or until it’s mealtime
  • You feel open to options as to what to eat—you’re not craving a specific (unhealthy) food
  • It stops when you are full
  • You don’t feel bad about yourself after eating

Characteristics of emotional hunger:

  • It comes on suddenly
  • You feel like you need to satisfy it immediately
  • You crave specific foods—typically comfort foods high in fat or sugar
  • You don’t feel satisfied when your stomach is full
  • You feel guilt, shame, and/or powerlessness after you eat

Do any of these sound familiar? Can you recognize the difference? Can you identify times when you have felt normal hunger and times when you have felt emotional hunger?

Tip 2: Identify Your Triggers

If you feel like you want to eat a pint of ice cream or stop at the drive-thru first thing after work each day, or you suddenly crave mac n’ cheese after you and your spouse get in a fight, you’re not alone. The stressors of work and relationships are common emotional eating triggers.

Other common triggers include:

  • Financial worries
  • Health concerns
  • Loneliness
  • Boredom

What is your trigger, or triggers? Identifying these is the first step to gain freedom from emotional eating. If you don’t know what is causing you to reach for potato chips and soda, then you won’t be able to find better ways of coping with it.

Take a few minutes to sit down with pen or paper (or smartphone) and jot down a few times you remember eating too much or eating junk food because you felt bad. What exactly was it that made you feel bad? Write down what happened and name the emotion.

From now on, keep this list on hand and add to it each time you feel triggered. Write down what happened and how you felt. Eventually, you’ll begin to notice a pattern and similarities. Perhaps you notice that you tend to overeat when you’re with your family because they make you feel stressed out. Maybe you tend to overeat on the weekends when you have a lot of free time and feel bored or lonely.

You don’t need to do anything with this information right now. Just spending some time focusing on what triggers your emotional eating is already going to make a big difference.

Step 3: Create Alternative Actions

What if instead of eating an entire pizza because you’re upset that a friend canceled your plans on a Saturday, you did something good for yourself instead? Instead of eating that high-calorie, fatty meal, and then feeling guilty about it afterwards, you could:

  • Go for a brisk walk
  • Do some yoga stretches
  • Put on a show that makes you laugh
  • Play loud music

What positive activities do you like to do that could distract you from your feelings and your food feelings? Dancing? Knitting? Playing with your dog? Make a list of activities you can do when the urge to eat comes on and pick one.

It may at first feel very difficult to get yourself to do that thing. So you will have to use a little mental toughness. You can tell yourself, “I only have to do this activity for 5 minutes, and if I still want [pizza, ice cream] I can have it.” Chances are, once you get out the door for a walk or turn on your favorite show, the cravings will pass.

If you’re not in a place where you can take a walk or turn on a show— say, at work, or at a family gathering—your alternate activity will look a little different. This is where the next tip is going to come in really handy, because it’s something you can do internally to notice your emotions before reacting to them.

Achieving this just one time is a major accomplishment. Because, if you can divert yourself once, you can do it every time. The key is to just keep doing it. Now, you may slip up now and again. That doesn’t mean you have failed. Success isn’t always linear. So keep going.

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practicing mindfulness to gain freedom for emotional eating

Tip 4: Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a therapeutic practice that helps you stay more aware of your feelings and your reactions to your feelings. In addition to helping you gain freedom from emotional eating, it can also help you in so many other ways. People who practice mindfulness tend to feel happier and more content in their lives overall and are much less susceptible to their emotions.

So how do you do it? Mindfulness can be both a practice, like meditation, in which you sit still for 5 to 10 minutes a day and focus, as well as way of refocusing during your day to stay present and aware. You can also use it during stressful times when you cannot take an alternative action, as discussed above.

To do the seated mindfulness practice:

  1. Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit
  2. Notice your body. Feel the physical sensations of every part of your body from your head to your toes. You don’t have to do anything specific; just notice.
  3. Notice your breath. Don’t breathe in any special way, just feel the breath as it enters and leaves your lungs.
  4. Notice when your mind has wandered. Don’t worry if it has wandered, just bring your attention back to the breath.
  5. Do this for 5 to 10 minutes to start, and then longer periods as you become more comfortable with it.

Practicing mindfulness throughout your day is a lot like the seated practice, but it doesn’t require staying still. You can do it while you’re brushing your teeth, doing the dishes, riding on the bus.

It simply requires bringing your awareness to your body and mind, rather than letting it wander. When you are washing the dishes, notice the sensations of your body, feel the sensation of the water on your hands, the smell of the soap, the sound of the water. Same thing when you’re brushing your teeth.

Become aware of your breath throughout the day. Stop and feel it, listen to it. Observe your thoughts, even your negative ones. Don’t judge them, just observe them.

Observe your emotions. You can feel emotions but observe them from a distance at the same time. Label what you are feeling: “I am feeling sad,” or “I am feeling angry.” Observe the sensation of the feeling in your body and just sit with it. Don’t try to escape it.

Here’s where practicing mindfulness can help you avoid emotional eating. At some point the idea or compulsion to eat will come up. Instead of acting on it, just notice it. Label it: “I am sad and that feeling is making me feel hungry.”

Make a mental inventory of the characteristics of emotional versus physical hunger discussed in tip 1. What kind of hunger are you feeling? If you decide that it is emotional hunger, now is the time to take one of your alternative actions. You may not feel like it. You don’t have to feel like it, you just have to do it.

Fundamentally this is quite simple, but putting it into action on a regular basis does take some focused effort and a little mental muscle at first. But achieving this mind-over-emotional-impulse just one time can set you on a path of success and eventual freedom from emotional eating.

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freedom from emotional eating
You can have a healthy relationship with food again.

Getting to the Root of Emotional Eating

Ultimately, you can accomplish a lot on your own just by staying mindful and checking your emotions; however, emotional eating doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. There is something underlying this compulsion to eat that needs to be healed.

Whether it’s because you hate your job, or you’re in an unhealthy relationship, or you just feel empty inside, healing the underlying feelings can make it much easier to control and eventually find freedom from emotional eating.

Typically, the best way to do this is by working with a therapist or coach who can help you get to the root of why you engage in emotional eating. An experienced professional can help you develop a road map for how to become a happier and more content person with a life you love. They can also provide you with support and accountability, rather than going it alone.

If you are seeking help, look for a therapist who has experience with emotional eating and eating disorders. Schedule a free consultation to see if they are the right match. Most of all, stay positive and don’t give up!

Do you struggle with emotional eating? Have you tried any of these methods before? What has worked or hasn’t worked for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Jody Braverman, NASM-CPT, NASM-FNS, PN1

Jody Braverman is a certified nutrition, fitness, and weight loss expert who has been working in the health & fitness industry for over two decades.

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