At some point, almost everyone will turn to food for relief from a bad mood. It’s called “emotional eating,” and it works because certain foods, like those high in fats and sugars, stimulate the brain to produce dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. If you’re dieting to lose weight, emotional eating can undermine your efforts, especially if it’s one of your primary coping mechanisms.
The good news is you can stop emotional eating. First, you should learn to identify the triggers that cause your emotional eating behavior. Then you can learn healthy ways to cope with these triggers. Positive lifestyle changes that minimize stress and difficult emotions can keep you on an even keel, so you’re less likely to feel overwhelmed and reach for that box of cookies.
Pinpoint Your Triggers With a Food Diary
You may eat emotionally to cope with negative feelings or stress, or even to avoid facing and feeling difficult emotions like shame or anger. Some people emotionally eat out of nostalgia for their childhoods, out of nervousness in social situations or even just because they’re bored and need something to do.
When you find yourself feeling the urge to gorge on sweets and snacks, get out a notebook and write down the event or feeling that sparked the urge. You may have to think about it a bit. Record the food you’re craving (or ate), what happened to make you want to eat it, how you felt while you were eating and how you felt after you finished.
As you compile more and more entries in this food diary, you’ll not only learn what your emotional eating triggers are, but you’ll be able to identify any patterns associated with your emotional eating habit. Armed with this information, you can learn healthier coping mechanisms.
Find Ways to Cope Without Food
There are plenty of healthy ways to cope with your feelings without food. Are you bored? Read a book, go for a hike, or practice a favorite hobby. Are you lonely? Call a friend or relative. Are you anxious? Try meditation or exercise. Are you stressed? Take a hot bath, drink some soothing herbal tea, or spend time with your loved ones.
If these suggestions don’t appeal to you, that’s okay. Do what works for you. The point is to begin responding to your emotions in ways that don’t involve food.
Feel Your Feelings
Many people emotionally eat as a way to escape from feelings they don’t want to face. While strong negative emotions like anger, fear or shame are frightening, they’re often not as painful as the consequences of hiding from them through emotional eating.
When you feel the impulse to escape from a negative emotion via food, stop. Stay present with that feeling instead. No matter how powerful the feeling, it will eventually pass. By acknowledging and owning your feelings, you can overcome them.
Take Care of Yourself
A healthy lifestyle is crucial to stopping emotional eating in the long run. When you’re taking care of yourself, you feel vibrant and carefree; in this state of mind, it’s much easier to cope with the curveballs life sometimes throws. You’re already making an effort to eat right, but you should also:
- Get plenty of sleep. You need at least eight hours of sleep a night to feel rested. Getting plenty of sleep is essential for your health. It also helps stave off sugar cravings, which often happen when you’re sleep-deprived and looking for a boost.
- Get social. Spending time with the people you care about is a great stress reliever.
- Get moving. You may already be exercising as part of your weight-loss plan, but if you’re not, you need to start. You should exercise every day, even if only for a short time. Physical exercise reduces stress, gives you energy, improves your mood and has a range of other health benefits.
- Take time to unwind. There’s so much value placed on busyness and productivity that it’s easy to forget that sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing. Take time each day to put your obligations aside and relax. Even if it’s just half an hour, it’ll do you good.
Emotional eating is common, and you’re far from the first person whose diet has suffered as a result. But you don’t have to let your feelings control your diet. With a little mindfulness, you can learn to turn those emotional eating binges into healthy, helpful activities that benefit you and those you care about.
About the Author: Jane Cole is a registered dietitian who has 15 years of experience working with clients and helping them to meet their weight-loss goals. By referring many of her clients to the Diet to Go website, she has helped many people overcome their food and dieting challenges.