Updated: Jul 22
Emotional eating is the single most challenging element my clients struggle with.
It comes at no surprise, considering we've been programmed to think of food as if it were our psychologist.
At the first sign of sadness, anxiety, or boredom, many reach for something to stuff their mouths with, without even thinking. Unfortunately, the price they pay is eventually their health.
The damages of overeating abound. They go from obesity to diabetes, high blood pressure, or more simply, a terrible sense of dullness.
There is a saying I never forgot that goes: "A portion of the food you eat feeds you, and the rest feeds your doctor." It is true, but it doesn't have to be this way for you.
Following are seven ways to stop emotional eating:
1. ASK YOURSELF IF YOU'RE HUNGRY OR EMOTIONAL
Every time you think you're hungry, stop and ask yourself if you're about to eat out of a depressed or anxious emotional state.
You'll realize how many times you're actually not hungry, but looking for a pacifier for your upset. It only takes a few seconds, and this simple awareness -practiced over time- can be enough to eliminate an unnecessary meal from your day.
2. DECIDE YOU WON'T EAT OUT OF EMOTION
Whenever you catch yourself, decide that you won't eat out of emotion just this time.
One of the rules of Alcoholic Anonyms is to stay sober "just for today." As with any addiction -and food can be one- you don't have to overwhelm yourself with the big picture. Just this moment will do.
So, drink a glass of water, go back to what you were doing and postpone eating. This is a simple but powerful technique, as often you're just thirsty.
In this light, water and coffee are great allies in curving hunger. I don't recommend excessive coffee drinking, but feel free to amp up your hydration. Your body will thank you for it.
3. SUBSTITUTE EATING FOR A DIFFERENT ACTION
Find a different way to channel the arising emotion. Meditate, exercise, go running, read a book, watch a tv series, etc.
Usually all it takes to not have that extra snack or bad meal is distracting yourself for a moment. Because you're not truly hungry, the mind forgets about it easily if you give it a few seconds.
Refusing to eat out of emotion is also a great practice to strenghten your willpower. It builds you up for resilience and success. The more you practice, the more you master it.
4. KEEP ONLY HEALTHY FOOD AT HOME
When you only keep healthy food at home, that's what you eat. Simple, right? And it works.
So, don't buy that bag of chips or cookies at the grocery store. It's harder to eat junk food if not easily available. Especially if you have to drive somewhere to get it.
Another great hack is making smart substitutions. Think of your favorite bad snacks and choose healthy ones that are similar in taste and texture.
You want to be prepared for when the cravings hit. Not having anything handy is not ideal.
5. KEEP A JOURNAL OF THE THINGS YOU EAT
When you write down everything you eat, you develop an unconscious competence around food. This means you're able to tell how each meal impacts you without looking it up or even stopping to think about it.
Now, getting to this point requires you do some homework and learn how individual foods affect your weight loss goal. This is worthy because you get to keep this valuable knowledge and apply it forever. It gives you the power to use nutrition in creative and fun ways in the future, while keeping your dream weight.
You can track and learn about food's caloric impact with free apps such as MyFitnessPal, which is popular, and the one I use.
6. DEAL WITH AND ELIMINATE THE UNDERLYING ISSUES
I could teach my clients about nutrition and fitness all day long. But unless we assess the psychological aspects of why people fail at it, it goes nowhere.
I believe this to be the No.1 reason why most diets and weight loss programs out there don't succeed. Some professionals forget knowledge comes by the dozen on the Internet. What's needed is an understanding of the hidden emotional decisions that are made around food.
So, if you want to be successful with this goal -and any goal for that matter- first detect and understand the emotional and psychological elements around it.
For example, food addiction can have its roots in low self-esteem. Until this is addressed, no plan can make this person believe that a different type of lifestyle is available to them.
Don't be afraid to consult a mental health professional, or even attend an OV meeting (Overeaters Anonymous). As per the testimony of a good friend, it can be life-changing.
7. HAVE AN ACCOUNTABILITY PARTNER
Having someone to hold you accountable for your decision to get healthy can be powerful, because we tend to stick to our goals if we know we have to report progress to someone else.
Your partner could be a best friend, family member, or Coach. What matters is you set a fixed day -ideally a minimum of once a week- when you report your weight or any other measurable progress.
Make sure there is a reward waiting for you at the end of the journey. It will motivate you to remain on track.
The Bottom Line
There is a place for pleasure in food. In fact, it's a fulfilling element of social gatherings and it establishes trust among those who share a dinner table.
However, it becomes problematic when out of your control.
If you feel food has become an addiction, seek help. You will find it's way more common than you think. You don't have to do it alone.