Food is an integral part of the human experience, and it nourishes us in more ways than one. “Humans eat for many reasons other than hunger,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, RDN, founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com. “We find eating pleasurable and comforting. We eat when we are happy, sad, mad, tired, bored, celebratory or lonely.” When we eat in response to a feeling — negative or positive — it’s called emotional eating. And it is not necessarily a bad thing.
“Emotional eating has such a negative connotation because most people picture things like a breakup and eating a pint of ice cream,” says Christina Ellenberg, a registered dietician in Atlanta, Georgia. “But sometimes it’s normal to emotional eat, like at weddings. Going out to celebrate a job promotion with friends is emotional eating and that’s a good thing. Food can also bring us some comfort and that can be a normal part of life.” For instance, eating a pint of ice cream might be an appropriate — even helpful — response to something like a break-up.
But there are times when food becomes a go-to for us when we feel difficult emotions, and done habitually, that can create problems for our physical or mental health.
When does emotional eating become a problem?
There are two big reasons someone might want to take a look at their emotional eating. “If every time you have an emotion, you turn to food, that’s when we want to scale back and look at fulfilling your emotions with doing other things besides eating,” says Ellenberg. After all, says Harris-Pinkus, “It’s only a temporary fix. It doesn’t really change anything at the end of the day.” The other challenge with emotional eating is that what we eat. “When people are eating emotionally, they tend to reach for those sugary, salty, fried foods, because we find them comforting,” says Harris-Pincus. And, in excess, that can lead to negative health effects.
Signs your emotional eating might be a problem include:
- You aren’t happy about it and want to make a change. That’s reason enough!
- You are using food to soothe your emotions regularly — whether for something like a conflict or just because you feel bored.
- It makes you feel bad physically.
- It makes you feel bad emotionally. If that happens, then “on top of whatever is stressing you out, you feel guilt and shame if your behavior wasn’t in line with your health goals,” says Jenny Taitz, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of End Emotional Eating.
- It’s disrupting your work or personal life.
- Thinking about food is taking up a lot of your headspace.
Ways to stop emotional eating in the moment
Ask yourself a few questions first.
- Am I hungry?
- When was the last time I ate?
- Did I have a balanced meal?
- Am I reaching for food because I think it will make me feel better emotionally or to distract myself from an emotion?
- What else could I do to manage this emotion (even if that emotion is just boredom or procrastinating from getting work done)? Pick from the list you’ve created (see below).
Then, take a few deep breaths to calm yourself. Ellenberg also likes the trick of counting the windows in the room backward to disrupt and slow down the moment.
Learn your hunger cues
“If you’ve been emotional eating for a while, it can be hard to know your true hunger cues,” says Taitz. To help you learn (or relearn) them, dieticians make use of a hunger scale similar to the one doctors use to rate pain. One on the scale is being so hungry you feel weak and ten is so stuffed you feel sick. The goal is to stay between 4 and 6, eating when you first begin to feel some hunger — may be a slight growl in your tummy — and stopping when you feel satisfied, but before you appreciate a sensation of fullness.
If you are physically hungry, have a balanced snack or meal
If your hunger is at a three or lower (maybe you feel shaky or hangry), and you haven’t had a meal within the last three to six hours, Ellenberg recommends having a balanced meal (protein, carbohydrates, and some micronutrients from fruit or vegetables). If it’s only been a few hours since your last meal and you feel physical hunger, reach for a balanced snack (a source of protein plus a carbohydrate).
And then sit down to enjoy it without any distractions. “So much of our experience of fullness has to do with slowing down,” says Taitz.
Create a list of alternatives to eating that you like to do
Pick things “that will take your attention away from wanting to eat when you’re not hungry,” says Harris-Pincus. And write them down or keep any needed supplies in sight, “so they are right there and you don’t have to think about alternatives.” Some options:
- Walking or sitting outside
- A 5-minute yoga routine or gentle stretching
- Knitting or other handiwork
- Crossword puzzles
- Jigsaw puzzles (have one set up and ready to be worked on whenever you need a few minutes to calm yourself)
- A 5-minute meditation
- A quick house organizing or work to-do that you have been putting off
- Taking a bath
- Lighting a scented candle or diffuser and putting on the music you like
Know when you just want the cookie
“If you want a chocolate chip cookie and you eat six other things that don’t satisfy that craving, you might as well have just had the cookie,” says Harris-Pincus. “If most of what you eat is fueling your body with the nutrients you need for optimal health, then there’s room for extras and it’s ok to honor that craving.”
Make sure you are getting enough sleep
“When we don’t get adequate sleep, it messes up a lot of our body signaling, and our bodies confuse the signals for hunger, thirst and fatigue,” says Harris-Pincus. “So, when you get that unpleasant feeling that you need something, you don’t think oh I need a glass of water, or I need to take a nap.” Instead, says Harris-Pincus, we often reach for food when what we needed was rest or hydration.
And not being well-rested makes healthy eating difficult in other ways. It contributes to stress and hormone imbalances that can make you want to eat, says Harris-Pincus.
Ways to work on emotional eating over time
- Return to the meal schedule of your childhood. “A really helpful way to start is to eat the way you were taught to as a child,” says Taitz, “three meals and a couple of snacks. We need fuel to not be overwhelmed and to think clearly.”
- Find new ways to manage stress such as exercise, meditation, or talking with someone you trust.
- Identify your triggers — the feelings, situations or environments — that make you want to emotionally eat or overeat. Then you can put plans in place to avoid them or have other coping mechanisms when they crop up.
- Have a neutral approach to food. Often, we think of foods as good and bad. We try to stay away from the “bad” ones but doing so can sometimes make you want them more or lead you to overdo it when you do enjoy them.
- Make food fuel. Rather than “assigning a moral value to the food,” Harris-Pincus recommends “Thinking about the goals you have for your energy, performance and emotional and physical health and then see what foods fit into that.”
- Learn how to “urge surf.” Taitz teaches this mindfulness technique — created by psychologist Alan Marlatt to help people overcome substance abuse disorders — to her clients. “A lot of people mistakenly assume that an urge will rise if you don’t act on it, but if you take a step back and observe your urge you will see that it rises and falls like the waves on the ocean,” says Taitz. “You can just wait for it to subside, and it shows you that your ability to sit with something is bigger than you assume at that moment.”
- Practice self-compassion. “At the end of the day, being kind to yourself is the most important thing,” says Harris-Pincus. “Self-care, self-love and self-acceptance are really critical to happiness and self-contentment. It’s really important to love the body that you’re in. It’s ok to make changes to it, but it’s the only one you’ve got.”
Get professional help if you need it
If you find that these approaches are not helping you have a healthier relationship with food or helping you manage difficult emotions, you might really benefit from professional support. “If emotional eating is impacting your quality of life, if you’re thinking about food a lot in between meals, it’s interfering with your work or social life, or you’ve been struggling with this for some time, it’s definitely worth a look,” says Harris-Pincus.
You could look for a registered dietician who specializes in working with emotional eating or a mental health counselor with the same focus. Taitz recommends two psychotherapy approaches in particular: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), which have been shown to be particularly effective for emotional eating.
“I always think of mental health treatment in the same way you would think of preventative medicine,” says Taitz. “Why wait until you have struggled for 5 years? If you can find someone in-network or afford it otherwise, it can be really helpful.” And with increased access to telehealth and apps that offer online therapy, there are more — and more affordable— options to get the support you need and deserve.
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