Nutrition Articles

Overcoming Emotional Eating

Break the habit of using food for comfort, distraction or just because you’re bored

By Kelly James-Enger

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Be honest. Are you always hungry when you eat? Or, like most of us, do you sometimes use food as a comfort or distraction when you’re anxious, angry or upset?

"Sometimes I’m so stressed I don’t even realize that I’m munching and working at the same time, or talking on the phone and picking at a bag of chips or a plate of cookies," admits 34-year-old Sharon Cindrich of Milwaukee, a writer and mother of two. "It’s not until I’m off the phone or done with a project that I realize I’ve eaten the whole plate of cookies or the whole bag of chips!" 

If Sharon’s story rings a bell, you’re not alone. "I think almost everyone, at some point in their lives, is an emotional eater," says Sheah Rarback,, R.D., of Miami, Fla., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Often when we talk about emotional eating, we’re thinking of people using food to deal with issues or stress. But happiness is also an emotion, and many of us also eat when we’re happy—at parties, and when we’re with family."

Occasionally turning to food to celebrate or forget your troubles doesn’t mean you have a problem. But letting your emotions dictate what and when you eat can hurt your fat loss efforts while leaving other issues in your life unresolved. "If you do it [eat because of emotions] in a certain range, that’s fine," agrees Rarback. "It’s when emotional eating becomes a major coping mechanism for all your emotions that it can become more of an issue."

The causes of emotional overeating

What makes people eat in response to their emotions? Much of it stems from childhood, where most of us learn to associate food with comfort. Crying babies are offered a bottle or a breast; a 5-year-old who skins his knee may be given a cookie as a treat. Eating is also a distraction which lets you escape—even if temporarily—from your problems.

While emotions such as anger, unhappiness or loneliness may cause people to eat in an effort to block those feelings, there’s more to it than that. Everyone feels bad at one point or another, but not everyone turns to food as a result. Embracing a diet mentality, however, may contribute significantly to the problem. At any given time, roughly 40 percent of women in the U.S. are dieting to lose weight. These diets often restrict food options, or limit the amount you’re "allowed" to eat. This makes you more likely to turn to food in times of stress or anxiety—you’re already physically hungry and being told you can’t have your favorites only adds to their allure.

If you’re a frequent dieter, breaking the habit of thinking of foods as "good" or "bad" can help you overcome emotional eating. It’s not a coincidence that people tend to opt for high-fat or high-sugar foods when they’re triggered by emotions to eat. We reach for the foods that we "shouldn’t" have, hoping that they’ll make us feel better. If you treat all foods as being equal, though, you’re less likely to go overboard on your favorites out of guilt, says nutrition therapist Elyse Resch, co-author of Intuitive Eating: A Recovery Book for the Chronic Dieter: Rediscover the Pleasures of Eating and Rebuild Your Body Image (St Martin’s, 1996).

Overcoming emotional overeating

Has emotional eating become an issue for you? If so, the first step is to figure out which emotions trigger you to eat. Keeping a food journal can help you do this. Write down when you ate, what you ate, how you felt, whether you were physically hungry, and how you felt afterward. (An entry might read, "8:00 p.m., ate four chocolate chip cookies, felt bored and a little depressed, not hungry; then felt guilty for eating the cookies.") Tracking your emotions and your eating will help you determine what types of feelings tend to drive you into the kitchen—and what foods you’re likely to eat as a result.

The next step is to make a list of what Rarback calls "alternative behaviors" to help deal with these emotions. "You might listen to a relaxation tape, call a friend, go for a walk, get some fresh air, or read an escapist book," Rarback says. "You need to track your behavior. When you see yourself slipping into a pint of ice cream or the bag of chips, acknowledge that pattern and test out alternatives to see if that helps you."

Before you take a bite

Before you eat, it’s also a good idea to make sure you’re truly hungry. Does your stomach feel empty? Do you feel light-headed? Are you experiencing hunger sensations or are you turning to food because you’re bored or anxious instead? Try drinking a big glass of water before you eat—thirst often masquerades as hunger. If, after taking a few minutes, you realize you’re physically hungry, go ahead and eat. Pay attention to your hunger level, and savor your food as you eat. Stop when you feel comfortably full, not stuffed.

Pay attention to the types of food you’re drawn to—this will often clue you in to whether you’re emotionally rather than physically hungry. If after an argument with your husband, you suddenly have a craving for a hot fudge sundae, it’s probably because you consider ice cream a comfort food. Or after a long day at work, you suddenly want homemade pot roast, chances are you need some emotional support rather than a heaping plateful.

Your personal comfort foods depend largely on what you ate as a child. If your mom always made you tomato soup and grilled cheese when you were sick, you’re likely to want something similar when you feel bad. Candy, cookies, ice cream, cake—those foods that we considered "treats" when we were little are often the foods we eat when we feel bad as adults.

Focus on your food

When you’re eating, pay attention to what you’re eating. Don’t talk on the phone or watch TV or work at your desk while you nosh. Stop and focus on the taste of the food and enjoy it. Also, make sure to include your favorite foods into your regular diet. If you love pizza, plan on having it one night a week. If you’re a chocoholic, have a small piece for dessert after dinner. By eating the foods you love instead of trying to stick to restrictive diets, you’re also less likely to turn to food for emotional reasons. "If you make it consciously OK to have some of your favorite candy every day, then you’re not overeating—you’re just having it as your snack food," Resch says. "Then it’s just part of your everyday overall caloric needs. You don’t make it a `no-no’ and end up eating it on top of everything else."

In the same vein, if you do have an intense craving for a particular food—say chips or a burger or a chimichanga—and you’re truly hungry, it’s often better to indulge that craving rather than wind up eating around it. A small portion of what you want will be more satisfying than eating a bunch of other "healthier" foods in an attempt to distract yourself. By giving your body what it’s asking for, you’re less likely to feel deprived, and want to go overboard as a result.

Remember your body

When you eat due to emotional reasons rather than physical hunger, it’ as if there’s a disconnection between your mind and your body. Exercising regularly can help you reconnect with your physical self. Working out also reduces depression and anxiety, two common emotional eating triggers. In fact, people who exercise regularly experience fewer food cravings than non-exercisers.

But don’t approach exercise solely as a way to burn calories or achieve the perfect body. Rather, consider it a way of honoring your body, Resch says. Focus on how exercising makes you mentally and physically stronger and better able to cope with demands of your daily life. Mindful workouts like yoga, pilates, and other slower-paced exercise can help you balance more intense sessions of weight training and cardio exercise. When you feel more comfortable in your own skin and more confident about your physical self, you’re also less likely to turn to food as a coping mechanism.

Overcoming emotional eating isn’t as easy as simply deciding to do it. You’re likely to slip occasionally, but don’t let that deter your progress. You have to commit to dealing with your feelings and not using food to numb, comfort or distract you from them, Resch says.

It takes practice to develop this "emotional muscle" and to be able to withstand negative feelings without grabbing that bag of chips or candy bar. You may have years of practice stuffing your emotions with food, so expect some setbacks. But over time, as you develop new habits, you’ll find that you no longer automatically reach for food when you’re upset or angry or lonely. And that’s a healthy habit you can be proud of.