How to Beat Emotional Eating

Imagine if hunger were the only reason we ever ate. No one would be overweight. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. For many of us, whatever we’re feeling can seem like a good reason to reach for food.

Exhausted? Chocolate will perk you up. Bored? A bag of chips will keep you busy.

Emotional eating is a hard habit to break because food delivers real rewards — and we’re not just talking about flavor and texture. Foods high in sugar and fat, for example, appear to disrupt the brain’s ability to register stress. The sugar and caffeine in chocolate really do make you feel more alert.

Of course, fixing problems with food tends to lead to more problems. Eating when you aren’t hungry can trigger guilt and regret (ugh, why did I eat that?), and excess calories contribute to weight gain and higher risk of disease.

Positive change begins with awareness. Start by asking yourself this question every time you have the urge to eat: “Am I truly, physically hungry?”

Here’s how to figure out the answer:

Physical hunger…

– builds gradually, 3 or so hours after your last meal

– can wait

– can be satisfied by many different foods

– goes away when you’re full

– doesn’t make you feel bad about yourself

– leaves you open to eating with others

Emotional hunger…

– comes on suddenly, regardless of how recently you’ve eaten

– feels like it needs to be satisfied right away

– drives cravings for specific foods

– remains even after you’re full

– triggers negative feelings like guilt or shame

– prompts you to eat alone

When you catch yourself eating for emotional reasons, write down what you’re doing or thinking at the time (or add a few words to your food tracker after entering a meal, like “worried about work” or “bored at home”).

Keep an eye out for repeat triggers — specific  feelings or situations that often prompt you to reach for food.


Shift Your Mood Without Food

Once you’ve identified one or more emotional eating triggers, you can work on finding a healthier response to that feeling or situation. The next time it comes up, what could you do instead of eating to feel better?

Here are some examples of how you might swap in a healthier response:

Old response: When you interact with a difficult coworker, you make a beeline for the office candy jar.

New response: When you interact with a difficult coworker, you call someone you trust and vent.

Old response: When you’re home alone and bored, you head to the kitchen for snacks.

New response: When you’re home alone and bored, you make a to-do list for tomorrow or work on planning healthy meals.

Old response: When it’s Friday night and you’ve had a busy week, you order pizza because you deserve a treat.

New response: When it’s Friday night and you’ve had a busy week, you put on pajamas and watch guilty-pleasure TV because you deserve a treat.

You may find that the healthier response makes you feel just as good — or even better — than eating would have. If it doesn’t, what else can you try?

You don’t have to sort through this on your own. Reach out to your coach at any time for  suggestions!