8 Strategies to Deal with Emotional Eating
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Emotional eating, often called “stress” eating is one of the most common problems I run into, as a coach, with my clients.
Emotional eating, in the most basic sense, is choosing to eat, not because you are physically in need of nourishment, but because there is an uncomfortable or negative emotion you are experiencing, and trying to mask with food.
Emotions like sadness, boredom, stress, fear, worry, guilt, shame, or loneliness may feel overwhelming, but deciding to overindulge on a regular basis in response to these emotions doesn’t just harm you physically, it harms you mentally.
Emotional eating creates a sense of powerlessness, of weakness, and can be the catalyst for feelings of guilt and shame.
Not only does all of this create a very unhealthy relationship with food and eating, it can actually wind up making you feel emotionally worse rather then emotionally better.
Stress eating may ease your feelings temporarily, or provide a short term distraction from an uncomfortable situation or feeling, but ultimately, food is physical nourishment. It cannot nourish you emotionally. Whatever stress, sadness, boredom or anxiety that drove you to raid the kitchen will still be there when the cookie or ice cream or potato chip binge has passed.
Some common signs of emotional eating are:
Changing your eating habits in response to the stress in your life.
Eating when you are not hungry or continuing to eat even when you are physically full.
Eating to avoid dealing with a stressful situation.
Eating to soothe your feelings.
Using food as a reward.
If some of these things sound familiar, or if you know emotional eating is something you struggle with- the following are eight strategies that may help you reframe your eating habits, and begin to seek healthy ways to address negative emotions, instead of turning to food.
1-PAUSE and think
The tendency to eat in stressful times inevitably becomes a learned response: the more often you turn to food to try to cope with stress, the stronger the habit becomes. The end result is often you wind up eating without really being “aware” not just of what you’re eating, but how much you are eating.
The first thing I can suggest is to begin to bring some awareness to you stress eating patterns. Something as simple as keeping a food journal and writing down your reason for eating along with a list of what you ate can be a helpful tool. It will not only bring your attention to what you’re eating and how much, but it will also help you correlate what is prompting you to eat what you ate. When you track these emotions alongside your food intake, you’ll start to see patterns in your eating behavior. Do you always end up binging on potato chips after a difficult day at work? Do you tend to eat ice cream at night when you’re feeling lonely? Are you mindlessly munching when you are bored?
Awareness is a powerful tool.
2-PRAY for strength
Emotional eating can make you feel weak and powerless. It can make you feel helpless and out of control, especially around food. And when you feel weak and helpless it can be hard to believe yourself capable of being able to free yourself from the chains of emotional eating.
In the book “Made To Crave”, Lysa TerKeurst wrote “The only way to negate an emotional eating trigger is to match it with truth.”
What lies are you believing? About food? About eating? About yourself? About your ability to change?
Author Danna Demetre wrote that we need to identify the lies we believe about eating, take negative thoughts captive, construct new thoughts to counteract the lies, and repeat this healthy self-talk until new, dominant thoughts form.
Write out the lies you believe and then come back with thoughts and affirmations you can use to push back on those lies.
Lie: “I can’t do this.”
Truth: “I am more then capable.”
Then pray for strength—not for you to have strength to resist, but for God to empower you with His strength, so you can push back on the lies.
3-PLAN with wisdom.
There’s a ton of truth to the saying: “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.”
If you know you have the habit of eating emotionally, it helps to have a plan for how you can address your emotional needs in other ways.
Proverbs 27:12 says that the prudent person “sees danger” and takes action to avoid it.
Whenever I work with a client who is struggling with emotional eating, I encourage them to create what I call a nourishment menu. This can be a powerful tool for helping you replace emotional eating with healthy, non-food habits! For a free download of how to create your own nourishment menu- click here!
4- PREPARE with diligence.
The first step to reducing the amount of stress eating you do is to keep the foods you normally reach for (trigger foods) out of the house.
Simply stop buying them. Candies set out in a dish, cookies on the kitchen counter, or bags of potato chips in the cupboard are temptations you do not need when working to overcome your emotional eating.
Think about it. If you are a recovering alcoholic would you consider it a good idea to line your kitchen cabinets with tempting alcoholic beverages?
Don’t surround yourself with the very thing you are trying to quit.
Instead, surround yourself with the things you want to eat more of- nutrient-dense, high protein, high fiber and healthy fat choices—not empty calories. Keep healthy snack options close by like sliced fruit, raw veggies like baby carrots and celery, chopped bell pepper and sliced cucumber, low-salt mixed nuts with carob chips, hard boiled eggs—all ready to grab from the shelf or refrigerator.
It also is really helpful, when trying to break the cycle of eating emotionally, to focus on nourishing your body with whole, nutrient dense meals spaced evenly throughout the day. This helps ensure your blood sugar is stable which helps eliminate sugar cravings. It will also prevent you from feeling restricted. If you limit calories too much, restrict specific food groups or eat the same foods repeatedly it may only increase your food cravings, especially in response to emotions.
Be prepared by planning out satisfying meals in advance. Eat plenty of lean protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats in plenty of variety to help curb cravings.
5-PLATE what you eat
A long time ago I used this tactic to help me break my own habit of picking my way through the kitchen - I simply promised myself to stop mindlessly eating food out of bags, boxes and containers.
I know many emotional eaters find themselves hiding in the kitchen, shame filled and rapidly eating cookies out of a bag or spooning ice cream directly out of the tub.
Whatever the food is, you don't want to get in the habit of not bringing aweareness to what is going into your mouth. It becomes way too easy to pick and snack without any real sense of how many extra calories you’re consuming.
If you want something, portion it out, put it on a plate, and get a fork or a spoon. Set it out in the counter or kitchen table. Often just the act of doing this makes you realize that you aren’t physically hungry and you don't really need what you were about to eat.
6- PRACTICE separating true hunger from emotional cues
It can be difficult to recognize and understand the difference between eating in response to hunger and eating in response to an emotion.
Begin to work on learning how to separate the two. One way to start is to rate your hunger before you are about to eat: On a scale of one to ten, just how hungry are you? If you are ravenous give yourself a 10. If you’re not hungry, rate yourself at a 1.
It also helps to tune in to the difference in how physical versus emotional hunger feels.
Physical hunger is felt in the stomach. Signs could be your stomach rumbling or an empty stomach feeling, light headedness, dizziness and irritability.
Emotional/Psychological hunger, on the other hand is often felt in the chest or in the mouth. It usually results in conjunction with a specific event or with a specific emotion like anxiety, sadness or stress.
Before you eat, tune into your body and practice determining if what you are physically experiencing is true hunger or a reaction to a negative emotion.
7-PUT TOGETHER a support team
Emotional eating can be a challenging and difficult addiction to break. A network of family and friends, including professional help in the form of a therapist or a health coach, can be as important to your success as your own motivation and efforts.
Those who care about your mental and physical well-being can help by holding you accountable, encouraging you, offering you a safe space to process your struggle, and perhaps even helping to diffuse some of the emotional situations that trigger your overeating.
Ecclesiastes 4:9 says that two are better then one. We all need love, encouragement and support for the difficult circumstances of life. Surround yourself with people willing to lend an ear, to offer guidance, to give you encouragement and motivation, or maybe even to join in as cooking, walking or workout buddies.
8- Build a POSITIVE PERSPECTIVE
Negative thoughts won’t yield positive outcomes. One of the biggest struggles you likely may face is overcoming the lack of confidence and self belief that has resulted from your battles with emotional eating.
One practice I have found to be helpful is the practice of praise and gratitude. What can you thank God for? What are you grateful for in this day? In this moment?
Choosing joy and gratitude—intentionally reversing your emotions—can help you also reverse unhealthy eating behaviors by drawing your focus towards what is positive and uplifting.
Instead of allowing grumbling to spiral into misery, or letting worry turn to fear and anxiety, practice intentionally reframing your thoughts.
It often helps to journal your gratitude or praise. You can purchase a gratitude journal or simply keep a small spiral bound notebook on your desk or kitchen counter and use it to log the things you feel grateful for.
When you feel stressed and tempted to eat, pause and write down three things you have to be thankful for. This small act can help divert your attention from the negative emotions you may be experiencing.
Creating the habit of praise can positively affect your thoughts and emotions, which in turn leads to healthier actions and behaviors, and can help you refrain from emotional eating.
Did you know I have a coaching program that specifically helps address the mental and emotional aspects of food and eating? If you want to break free from self criticism, judgment and shame; embrace self compassion, self care and healthy self love, and achieve your physique goals by learning to build a healthy relationship with exercise, food and eating- then check out THE BEYOND STRONG PROJECT, a 12 week program that will help guide you into your best self!