Overcoming Emotional Eating: Understanding the Power of Food and Your Emotions

Food is powerful. Think about it. So many of the meals we eat involve family, friends, traditions and rituals. And we often eat not out of hunger, but for emotional reasons. How can you overcome emotional eating?

What Is Emotional Eating?

When you eat for a reason other than hunger, it’s usually in response to some negative emotion.

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Julie M. Simon says,

“If you eat when you’re not hungry, eat beyond fullness, or choose to eat unhealthy comfort foods, there is a good chance that your eating has an emotional component.”

Julie M. Simon, When Food Is Comfort

For example, you had an argument with a loved one. Maybe your boss yelled at you today. Or, you looked at yourself in the mirror and hated what you saw.

Alternatively, you may eat for a reward.

Aced that report? Have ice cream after work.

Had a good workout today?

Reward yourself with chips and dip (and maybe throw in a glass of wine for good measure).

Meals evoke memories, both pleasant and not so much.

For most people, food can be a (temporary) comfort or can lead to heartache, guilt, and even shame.

And when you’re over 50, food has had many decades to take on more meaning in your mind.

This, in turn, can make it more difficult to break free from the ingrained patterns of emotional eating we’re so used to.

The bad part about emotional eating is that it can, and usually does, set up a cycle of

  • unhealthy eating to deal with your immediate feelings
  • guilt for eating crappy food
  • more unhealthy eating

How To Overcome Emotional Eating

First, recognize that everyone eats for emotional reasons sometimes. Maybe you are visiting a beloved relative and you smell the inviting brownies you remember so fondly as a child.

a stack of brownies that may lead to emotional eating

You may not stop and check your hunger before indulging in one. There, you’ve just eaten emotionally.

This is not necessarily a problem if it only happens now and again.

Especially if it’s not in response to some emotion like guilt, shame, anger, stress, etc. Or even boredom.

But if you do this frequently, even mindlessly, you may distract yourself temporarily from whatever emotion you’re dealing with, but the initial problem still exists.

And the vicious cycle continues.

The first step to overcoming emotional eating is understanding the difference between eating because of emotional hunger, and eating because of physical hunger.

Recognize The Difference Between Physical And Emotional Hunger

Physical Hunger

  • Comes on gradually
  • Is felt in the stomach
  • Progresses gradually
  • Can be satisfied with many foods
  • Goes away with enough food
  • Occurs hours after eating previously

Emotional Hunger

  • Comes on suddenly
  • Is focused on your thoughts
  • Usually fixates on one type of food
  • Usually leads to overeating
  • Can occur at any tie
  • Makes you feel guilty

Once you recognize these differences, you can begin to overcome your emotional eating.

Identify The Foods That You Turn To

Are you craving sweets or chocolate? Salty, crunchy snacks? Pizza, fried chicken, anything with simple carbohydrates?

One way to help overcome emotional eating is to keep your surroundings free from the foods you usually turn to when you have a pending emotional eating binge.

And at first, you may need to do this.

Long term, however, you want to practice enough strategies that you no longer need to forbid any foods from your kitchen or workplace.

woman eating ice cream cone

The fact is, before you learn alternative methods for dealing with your negative emotions, you should at the very least keep offending foods out of sight.

Don’t have a large container of homemade chocolate chip cookies sitting on the kitchen counter tempting you.

And if necessary, remove the foods entirely for a time.

Identify The Circumstances That Lead to Emotional Eating

Is it something simple like driving by the donut shop every day on the way to work? This is easy…drive a different route.

Are there certain people who, when you spend time with them, encourage you to enjoy ALL.THE.FOOD?

Perhaps you’ll need to spend less time with them while you learn to deal with emotional eating.

Do you tend to eat anything in sight when you have to work late? Be sure to plan for this and make a healthy meal or snack ahead of time.

Keep it in the office refrigerator or bring a small cooler with you to work.

a graphic about overcoming emotional eating

Maybe you eat frequently just because you’re bored. This one is a lot easier to fix, and I’ll deal with it specifically below.

But maybe you eat just because you’re lonely.

While possibly related to boredom, it’s a bit more emotional than just having nothing to do at the moment.

Try calling a friend, or reading a book you’ve been wanting to dive into.

Or, go for a walk, do a workout, clean out your closet, start a sewing project (or learn to sew!).

Practice a musical instrument, learn a new language. Honestly, there are more ideas than you can possibly think of.

In fact, sometime when you feel like eating something because you’re bored, why don’t you get out a piece of paper and write down 25 or more things you could do instead of eating?

Keep the list handy for the tempting times.

Explore Other Ways To Deal With Your Feelings

You have some ideas above for when you’re bored or lonely. But what if you’re angry, tired, afraid, or frustrated?

Write Your Feelings In A Journal

Use a notebook journal to help overcome emotional eating

Here I encourage you to write out your feelings, maybe even in a journal you keep just for this purpose.

You need to understand that feelings come from thoughts your own mind generated.

If you feel anxious, for instance, this is because you first had a thought that made you feel anxious.

Once you recognize this, you can learn to make a conscious choice to change that thought.

You and you alone are in control of your thoughts.

Find Other Distractions

Sometimes when we eat for emotional reasons, we’re just trying to distract ourselves from the real problem(s).

If you can find different ways to distract yourself, for example before a big date, or business meeting, at least you won’t feel guilty about having eaten something instead.

Here are some ideas. Not all of them may be appropriate in each situation:

  • read a book
  • watch a movie
  • clean out your closet
  • look at decorating magazines for inspiration
  • dance to some favorite music
  • call up a friend
  • take a nap
  • take a walk
  • work in your garden
  • drink some tea
  • polish your nails
  • jog in place
  • organize your junk drawer
  • sew
  • work on a scrapbook
  • work on a picture album
  • write a letter (!)
  • color
  • drink water
  • play solitaire
  • do a crossword puzzle

Learn And Practice Mindful Eating

While mindful eating isn’t a quick fix, it’s an excellent way to get a handle on emotional eating. In fact, emotional eating is really a type of mindless eating.

Other mindless eating habits include eating a certain food when the time is right, e.g., eating dessert every night at 9PM, or having a handful of candy every time you stop by a coworker’s desk.

These may not necessarily be due to emotional eating, just plain habit.

But mindful eating can be a great help in overcoming emotional eating.

Related Post–Seven Simple Ways to Overcome Mindless Eating

One way to practice mindful eating is based on the recommendations in the book The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution.

The author, Lynn Rossy, PhD, uses the acronym BASICS for the guidelines she teaches on learning mindful eating. BASICS stands for:

  • Breath and belly check for hunger
  • Assess your food
  • Slow down
  • Investigate your hunger throughout the meal
  • Chew your food thoroughly
  • Savor your food

Throughout the book, each aspect of mindful eating is explained thoroughly.

Although it might seem daunting and maybe a bit boring or complicated, once you get the hang of it, the process needn’t take a lot of time or effort.

And the results may astound you. You may be surprised at how much you can learn about yourself by practicing some of these behaviors consistently.

Ready To Overcome Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating can be exhausting, self-defeating, and even dangerous.

You may have many years of emotional eating to deal with. It’s not going to go away overnight, but with focused awareness and effort, it is possible to overcome it.

Start with a short pause before you begin eating anything. Think about whether or not you are physically hungry. Don’t get discouraged if you forget.

Even this step will take practice.

Keep a journal to record what you’re thinking when you feel an urge to eat. In this way, you can begin to see patterns for why you choose to eat what–and when you do.

Above all, be kind to yourself. You’re probably beat yourself up enough over the years. That clearly hasn’t worked, so it’s time to try something new.

All you have to lose is your stressful, emotional eating.

I am not a licensed therapist. If you are suffering from compulsive overeating and need treatment please seek the help of a professional. If you need help for eating recovery call 1-877-711-1690 or visit Eating Recovery Center to talk a masters-level clinician.

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One Comment

  1. We can all fall into emotional eating. Itโ€™s important to know our own individual triggers. Thanks for instilling confidence in everyone that it IS POSSIBLE to overcome!