What is Emotional Eating—and How Do You Stop It?

Coaching

When you're stressed, food can be a crutch. Here's how to stand on your own.

Last updated: 29 June 2022
6 min read
  • Emotional eating happens when you're consuming food in response to an emotional trigger instead of a physiological hunger cue.
  • If you're having a standoff with a bag of crisps because you're #stressed, take charge by listing the pros and cons of finishing it.
  • To deal with that whole "But I deserve a treat!" thing, psych yourself up to be responsible: "I know I can handle this situation without losing myself in food".


Read on to learn more …

Simple Ways to Stop Stress-Eating

It's late Friday night, and you've had a tough week. Work feels unproductive, you're fractious with people at home and your workouts have been crappy. You've finished dinner, but that doesn't stop you from opening a jumbo bag of crisps (or box of cookies, bottle of wine or all of the above). The next thing you know, it's empty.

This is textbook emotional eating, when you're consuming in response to an emotional trigger rather than a physiological hunger cue, says Jennifer Taitz, PsyD, a cognitive behavioural therapist in Los Angeles and the author of End Emotional Eating. When it happens, says Taitz, "we eat both more than we normally would and foods that we might normally choose not to eat". No matter how solid your nutrition intentions are, the behaviour can stall progress.

Sadness, worry, boredom—these feelings can be associated with emotional eating, although the cue isn't always negative, says Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD, the director of curriculum at Precision Nutrition. You could be enjoying Christmas dinner with your family, and though you're stuffed, you have a pile of Grandma's cookies because you enjoy the nostalgia of it. Even that is technically emotional eating, though it's not necessarily problematic, says Scott-Dixon. A one-off indulgence can be harmless if it feels worth it.

You can run into trouble when you're regularly eating to avoid or smother feelings—and not acknowledging it. Of all our emotions, stress is one of the biggest triggers for this, say both Taitz and Scott-Dixon. Food is an instant, always accessible escape, says Taitz, but a temporary one. After you eat, you may go right back to feeling stressed … and be angry at yourself for that empty bag of crisps.

Feeling stuffed and guilty isn't the only issue. Chronically using food for comfort can lead to unwanted weight gain. And feeling like you can't control what you eat may have a domino effect, making you less motivated to keep up a consistent workout routine or solid sleep schedule, says Scott-Dixon.

The good news is, you can prevent that spiral from ever starting (or stop it if it already has) with some simple self-awareness.

Simple Ways to Stop Stress-Eating

1. Practise the art of the pause.

Before you tear into a snack or meal or even take another bite of what you're already eating, Scott-Dixon recommends asking yourself, "Why am I eating this?" Is it because you're actually hungry? This simple accountability check-in puts you back in control and can make you less likely to eat when you don't really need or want to, says Scott-Dixon. Making food choices on autopilot, on the other hand, can make you more likely to emotionally eat, binge and choose foods higher in fat and sugar, according to a study published in the journal Nutrients.

2. Have better options on hand.

"Think about what other activities nourish you and have no downsides: devouring a book by your favourite author, calling a friend or doing a guided meditation", says Taitz. She calls this strategy "diversifying your soothing portfolio". Write your list down, pin it up in your kitchen and hold yourself to it.

If you're having a particularly intense craving, Taitz recommends going a layer deeper by jotting down a quick pros and cons list for listening to your favourite podcast versus tearing through a tub of rocky road ice cream, for example. "It's helpful to notice that saying no to the ice cream isn't saying no to fun, it's saying yes to feeling better", she says.

3. Eat well when you are hungry.

Opt for delicious, nutrient-dense foods and you'll be less likely to lose control, says Scott-Dixon. "Less-processed whole foods, like lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, and high-fibre carbs, all create a chemical environment in your body that makes you less susceptible to emotional eating", she says. "That's because nutritious foods help regulate your moods, and you don't get those blood sugar highs and lows that put you in a panic". Doing some meal planning could help keep you accountable.

4. Prioritise Zs.

No shocker here: logging six or fewer hours of sleep is associated with increased emotional eating, according to a review out of Finland. Get more sleep and you should have more brain power to make food decisions you'll feel good about, says lead study author Hanna Konttinen, PhD, a lecturer in the department of social research at the University of Helsinki. Plus, she says, better rest can help you stay in a happier frame of mind, so you're less likely to experience the emotions that may make you turn to food for comfort in the first place.

5. Don't confuse self-care with splurging.

During stressful times, and especially when events are outside your control, there's value in giving yourself a break. But Taitz cautions that self-compassion isn't permission to say, "Times are tough and it doesn't matter what I eat". Instead, psych yourself up with something closer to, "I know that I can handle this situation without losing myself in food". "Being kind to yourself is like being a good coach, someone who knows what you're capable of and cheers you on to do your best, not someone who says, 'screw it'", explains Taitz.

6. Let it linger.

You have the ability to choose to eat. And sometimes remembering that you are the boss of your body is all you need to walk away from the kitchen. "A lot of times, an urge comes up and people think, 'It's going to get worse. I might as well give in now. If not, I'll eat three times as much'", says Taitz. "But urges rise and fall like waves, and if you can sit back and just notice and not judge the urge, it'll be more likely to pass".

Choosing to eat when you're actually hungry versus to squash an emotion also means you're more likely to actually enjoy your meal. And that happy, nourished feeling is what food should give you, both while you're eating and after you're done.

Words: Marissa Stephenson
Illustration: Gracia Lam

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For more real-life eating advice, explore a library of articles with advice straight from nutrition experts themselves.

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