Food is fuel. People eat to provide the energy needed to function. But people also eat for more complex emotional reasons. They may eat because they are unhappy or depressed, when they are bored, or because they are stressed. When they feel full, it provides a warm reassuring feeling. The problem, of course, is that the foods that most people inevitably reach for are high in fats and sugars. These are the comfort foods that make us feel good. In this article, I reveal how to stop emotional eating with 6 proven strategies for success.
- Environmental Cues
- Mindful Eating
- Emotional Health
- Benefits of Journaling
- Habit Adjustment
- Look for Food Alternatives
- Use the Hunger Gauge
You can only eat the foods that you have available to you. When you are at home, you are able to control those food choices. So, the first step to controlling emotional eating has to do with your weekly shopping. Have a nourishing meal an hour before you shop, and then stick to a list that excludes the unhealthy comfort foods that you gravitate toward. Instead, purchase healthier options such as dried fruit, nuts, and rice crackers.
If you do purchase some treat foods, take a few minutes when you get home to separate them into single-serve ziplock bags. That way, you will be more likely to stop once you’ve had one.
Emotional eating is usually mindless eating. You may stuff food into your mouth while you’re watching TV or surfing YouTube. Then, before you know it, you’ve gone through a whole packet of chips or finished off half a chocolate cake!
Eating mindfully requires that you give attention to the food you are consuming. To do this, you will need to switch off the TV, put away the smartphone, and start thinking about what you’re eating. Slow down and learn to savor every mouthful, enjoying the aromas and flavors. Put your fork down between each mouthful and chew your food at least 10 times before swallowing.
Having a greater mental connection to the eating process is a good first step to stop emotional eating in its tracks.
Addressing the emotional problems that trigger your eating will allow you to get to the root cause of the issue. This will require that you take a figurative step back to think about what has been happening in your day and to identify emotional triggers that led to overeating. Once you have identified a trigger, look for ways to avoid or overcome it.
If you often eat as a result of boredom, focus on why you are bored and what you can do to change that feeling. Consider joining a class after work rather than spending all evening in front of the TV.
Research has shown that people who have been traumatized as children often turn to food for comfort and nurturing. By confronting those past experiences and identifying how memories influence your eating patterns, you will be able to find more healthy ways to release your emotions regarding them. These may include journaling, exercising, or practicing mindful meditation.
Covid-19 emotions and the stresses associated with the pandemic may also be at the root of emotional eating. Reaching out for social support and remaining plugged into your online support system can help to deal with struggles related to Covid.
Benefits of Journaling
Journaling is hugely beneficial in helping to stop emotional eating. The benefits of journaling for mental health are also well established. Begin by writing down everything you are currently eating. Also, record how you were feeling when you ate. Were you unhappy or bored? Did this coincide with eating more cookies than you had intended while you were watching TV?
If your journal shows a link between boredom and snacking, go back to the first suggestion. Make sure that you have only low-calorie and low-sugar snacks on hand, such as fruit or rice cakes.
Think about any habits that you automatically connect to food. For many people, there is a connection between the couch, movies, and cookies. Or it might be between cold, comfort, and hot chocolate or work, coffee, and a donut. Your task is to interrupt those habits with healthier alternatives. For example, start connecting the couch and movies with fruit, cold and comfort with herbal tea, and work and coffee with a cereal bar.
Look for Food Alternatives
Instead of comfort eating, look for an alternative treat such as a long soak in the bath, a home manicure or pedicure, or going for a long walk. If your food craving becomes especially strong, try to keep yourself busy to stop emotional eating. Reorganize your book or music collection, look at photos that evoke happy memories, or do some spring cleaning. Write a letter to a friend you haven’t seen or spoken to for a long time or phone someone for a chat.
Use the Hunger Gauge
When you rediscover eating as a response to a feeling of being hungry rather than as an emotional response, you take a major step toward healthier nutrition. Doing so will allow you to be more objective about how hungry you actually are when you eat. Use the hunger gauge to help you measure how hungry you actually are.
The hunger gauge has the following 6 levels:
- You are desperately hungry and experiencing clear physical signs of hunger such as feeling shaky or faint.
- You are very hungry; your stomach is rumbling and you feel a little tired.
- You are moderately hungry; you have an appetite for food and a pleasant sense of anticipation.
- You feel satisfied. You could perhaps be tempted to eat dessert, but it is not essential.
- You are too full; you left it a little late to stop eating because you couldn’t resist the temptation of another small helping.
- You are very full; you ignored all the signs to stop eating and now feel weighed down. You may also experience indigestion and heartburn.
It is best to eat when you are at Level 3 of the hunger gauge—moderately hungry. Stop eating when you feel satisfied but could eat a little more. Your food intake needs to adequately sustain you during the day so that you do not become ravenously hungry from one meal to the next. If you eat when you are at Level 1, you are at risk of overeating.
Whenever you feel the temptation to eat, go back to the Hunger Gauge and analyze where you are at. If it’s not Level 3, don’t eat!