Updated: Jul 20
Eating healthy, nutrient dense foods is critical to our health and wellbeing. We must eat to survive. But over time, we have begun to find pleasure in our food choices and eating during times of stress can help ease emotions we are in the midst of processing. But the self-sabotaging behaviour of the binge-guilt-binge cycle that can follow emotional eating gets in the way of our efforts to eat healthy and stay on track.
If you find yourself racing to the pantry when you’re feeling down or upset to find comfort in food, you’re not alone. It’s a common phenomenon today, and it’s part of a practice called emotional eating.
People who eat emotionally do so several times a week or more to suppress and soothe negative feelings. Not uncommon are accompanying feelings of guilt or shame after eating this way, which can lead to an endless cycle of excess eating and associated issues, like weight gain.
The root cause of emotional eating can be anything from work stress to financial worries, health issues to relationship struggles. While studies have shown that emotional eating is more common with women than men, it’s an issue that affects both sexes.
Negative emotions may lead to a feeling of emptiness or an emotional void. Food is believed to be a way to fill that void and create a false feeling of “fullness” or temporary wholeness. Other factors include:
Retreating from social support during times of emotional need
Not engaging in activities that might otherwise relieve stress or sadness like exercise
Not understanding the difference between physical and emotional hunger
Using negative self-talk in association with bingeing episodes, which can create a cycle of emotional eating
Changing cortisol levels in response to stress, leading to cravings
So how do you kick the emotional eating habit? Here are 12 tips and tricks to help you stop "eating your feelings."
1. Know What's Happening
Some people eat less when they're under stress. Others need the distraction of comfort food or fattening snacks when things aren't going well, and emotions are running high. Because the effect is temporary, you may find yourself eating when you’re not hungry, or without thinking about it. By developing a level of awareness of what you’re eating and why you’re eating it, you’ll avoid making unhealthy food choices and the impending cycle of negative self-talk and loathing that can accompany it.
2. Keep a Food Diary
Keep track of everything you eat during the day. You can use an app like my personal fave, MyFitnessPal. You can make note of what you ate and the time you ate it. You can even make food notes during the day, allowing you to document where you were when you ate and feelings you may have been processing. If you prefer the good ole fashioned route, a journal works equally well! Your food diary will be a great tool to help you track your habits and patterns. Are you snacking between meals? Is food a constant companion? You’ll start to see how healthy -- or unhealthy -- your food choices are. Better yet, it will help you set goals that can really help.
3. Do a Hunger Check
I teach my clients how to honour what I call the hunger and fullness scale. If you just ate a big meal and are still reaching for snacks, ask yourself: Are you hungry, or are your emotions causing the cravings? You may want to do something different until the urge passes, like take a walk or call a friend. Or you could try to drink some water. Those hunger pangs may actually be your body may be trying to tell you it’s dehydrated.
4. Get Support
Having an accountability partner is always a great way to stay on track. Make sure you have family and friends who can keep you positive and focused in times of stress. You can even hire a coach, like me! It can really help you adopt and stick to a healthy lifestyle. In fact, research shows that people with high-stress jobs have better mental health when they have strong support networks.
5. Focus on Your Goals
Don’t get too hung up on things like calorie counts, menu planning, and watching the scale. It might make you lose track of the lifestyle changes you're after. In fact, being stuck in a food rut can lead to more cravings. Don’t be afraid to try new foods, or different ways of preparing old favourites. Make sure to reward yourself with a healthy treat if you reach a key goal.
6. Don't Tempt Yourself
Remove the urge to snack on unhealthy foods by keeping them out of your home. Clear the clutter from your pantry. If you’re worried about making poor choices when you shop, stick to a strict grocery list of healthy foods, and never visit the grocery store when you’re hungry or in a bad mood.
7. Make Healthy Choices
Have an abundant supply of good-for-you nibblers at the ready if you get hungry between meals. Things like fruit with nuts or nut butter, vegetables with hummus, or even unbuttered, air popped popcorn are perfect. Check out my recipe packs for some tasty snacks and meals.
8. Don't Be So Hard on Yourself
Don’t obsess over your failures. Instead, learn from your mistakes. Don’t let one or two missteps create more stress. Instead, focus on the big picture and recognize how you can break your stress-eating cycle.
9. Make Substitutes
If you’re craving pizza, try putting tomato sauce, veggies, and part-skim mozzarella on pita bread. Really want tacos? Make a taco salad instead, using beans, tomatoes, cheese, and hot sauce. If you have a sweet tooth, try “fun size” versions of the real thing or mini ice cream bars as a substitute. You’ll still get the pleasure of your favourite foods without wrecking your diet.
When the urge to eat hits you, try some relaxation techniques. Mindful meditation can ease stress and help fight the impulse that triggers stress eating. Choose a quiet place to sit and observe your thoughts and your breathing. Don't judge how you feel. Just notice what you're thinking and ease your focus back to your breathing. I teach my clients the 5x5x7 breathing technique, which has you breath in for 5 counts, hold for 5 counts and exhale for 7 counts. Try doing this technique 10 times. It takes just a couple of minutes and can work magic during a stressful moment.
11. Work Up a Sweat
A good workout triggers your body to make chemicals called endorphins that interact with your brain to calm and relax you. What's more, it'll make you feel good about yourself. Worried about wear and tear on your body or causing a recurring injury to creep up? Try yoga or tai chi. They're both low-impact ways to work up a good sweat and keep fit.
12. Talk It Out
Don’t be afraid to discuss your eating habits with your coach, doctor or a mental health professional. They may be able to provide tips and therapy to help you identify what’s causing your stress, strategies and tools to minimize it, as well as ideas on how to make better food choices and reach your health and wellness goals.
Don’t let stress or emotional eating get the better of you. Use these tips and tricks to overcome it or download my eBook: The Hunger Scale and infographic: 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating to adopt your healthiest eating habits.