Imagine this: you have a long, hard day at work. You had planned on cooking something healthy, but you decide to order pizza or Chinese takeaway instead. While this kind of behavior is okay once in a blue moon, emotional overeating can be a huge hindrance to your weight loss goals. How do you stop?
Here are five tips to help you control emotional eating:
- Identify your triggers
- Try to replace the bad habit
- Practice mindful eating
- Balance your meals
- Seek support
Whether you’ve noticed a connection between stress and overeating or you have another trigger, the five tips in this article can help you learn where your emotional eating habits come from so you can begin to overcome them. You’ll be a healthier, happier you!
1. Identify Your Triggers
You can’t change a habit that you don’t acknowledge or understand, so my first tip for overcoming emotional overeating is deducing what your triggers are.
In other words, what is it about life that makes you want to overeat? Or, to frame it slightly differently, what stresses do you have in your life that make you care less about the dietary decisions you make?
For many people, work can be a trigger.
Perhaps you have long hours and you’re so numb by the end of the day that you don’t care what you eat as long as it’s edible. Maybe you have a boss who’s hard on you and leaves you stressed Monday through Friday.
Speaking of stress, that’s another huge emotional eating trigger for a lot of people.
Stress can be so many things, from the aforementioned work stress to financial stress to life stress.
Maybe you’re a new parent and you feel constantly frazzled. Perhaps you made a major lifestyle shift and you’re having a hard time adjusting.
Relationships can be a trigger for overeating as well. It might be a strained parent or family relationship, an in-law, a neighbor, or a frenemy whose presence leaves you wanting to eat anything and everything in sight.
No matter what your trigger is, it’s valid, so don’t feel bad!
You very well may have more than one trigger, which is fine.
After all, sometimes it can truly feel like the whole world is pushing down on you in every way. The last thing you want to do is pay attention to the food you’re consuming.
To deduce what your triggers are, keep a journal for a week where you map out your daily routine.
At the points where you feel the urge to overeat, note it in the journal.
After the week concludes, look back over your week in writing and see all the instances where emotional eating tempted you the most.
That will help you figure out your triggers fast.
2. Try to Replace the Bad Habit
I’m not telling you to quit emotional eating by simply just stopping. If it was that easy, then anyone would be able to do it.
It’s not anywhere near that easy, though.
Instead, what I’m telling you to do is find an alternative when you feel the urge to let your emotions guide your food choices.
For example, maybe you walk away from the fridge, step outside, and deeply breathe for a minute. You’ll feel centered and focused and can then think more clearly about what you want to eat.
Maybe you decide to go for a walk. That too will help you reprioritize and think logically about what your body is craving, not necessarily what stress is pushing you to consume.
Okay, but what about those days when you’re so exhausted that you can barely stand let alone think? You don’t have the energy or time for a walk, so what do you do?
If you’re at the point where you feel like emotional eating is best for you after a long day, then what you need is self-care.
You may think that overeating is self-care, but it’s the opposite. It feels good to nosh on a whole pizza or three slices of chocolate cake in the moment, but then you can go on a self-loathing spiral.
What would really make you feel better? Perhaps all you need to do is change into a fuzzy robe, put on your favorite pair of slippers, kick up on the couch with a glass of wine or a snack, and watch some Netflix.
When you step away from the urge to overeat, one of two things will happen.
Either you’ll feel more thoughtful and ready to eat something that’s not pure carbs and sugar, or you’ll decide to overeat anyway.
If it’s the latter, please don’t beat yourself up.
Like any habit, quitting emotional eating isn’t an overnight process. It’s going to take time, and you’ll make great strides at some point and backslide at other points.
3. Practice Mindful Eating
Here’s something that you might be surprised to hear me say, but I’m holding to it.
I don’t want you to make food off-limits. I’ll talk more about this in the next section, but sometimes you have to eat what nourishes your soul even if it doesn’t always nourish your body.
If you are going to eat unhealthy foods, focus on mindful eating rather than inhaling the food like Kirby.
Are you not sure what mindful eating is? Allow me to explain!
A 2017 publication of Diabetes Spectrum from the American Diabetes Association defines mindful eating as “paying attention to our food, on purpose, moment by moment, without judgment.”
How often do you sit down to eat and the TV is on, or you’re scrolling through social media on your phone, or you’re working?
Those things are the opposite of mindful eating, yet they’ve become so ingrained in us that it’s hard to stop those behaviors.
Here’s how I want you to incorporate mindful eating into your daily routine. Start with one meal a day or even a snack.
Choose a time when you know you can get away for a couple of minutes and prepare your meal or snack.
Take a bite and close your eyes just so you can focus more on other sensations like taste and smell.
How does the food feel entering your mouth? What flavor notes hit your taste buds first?
Even if you eat something mindfully that you normally eat every single day, you’ll find that consuming the food is a completely different experience. You had never realized how nuanced the eating experience can be.
Rushing to eat your food may suit our go-go-go lifestyle, but it’s not doing you any favors.
A 2015 report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science notes that enjoying food is both a combination of smell and taste.
You see, scents can travel from the back of your mouth into your nasal cavity when you eat, which allows you to get the full depth of a food’s aroma and decipher between types of food.
The researchers involved in the study note that when you chew, air can enter through the nasal cavity and reach the lungs. What results is an air curtain that allows food volatiles to travel to the intended destination.
However, breathing too fast can impede the process, such as what you might do when gnawing through a meal fast to get back to work on time. This prevents you from experiencing the full flavor and aroma of your meals, which is a real shame!
Another risk in eating and multitasking is that you’re barely paying attention to the food you consume. When you rush, you could easily eat more than intended without meaning to.
4. Balance Your Meals
I said in the section prior that you shouldn’t make food off-limits, and I want to explain the rationale behind that a little bit more.
It’s a well-documented psychological phenomenon that when someone tells you that you can’t have something, that makes you want it more.
When you’re tired or stressed or feeling battered down, it’s harder to have the willpower to overcome your desires.
Thus, you should eat what you’re craving or what would nourish your soul because you’ll have less of that internal push-pull battle.
Plus, now that you know the value of mindful eating, you’ll appreciate what you’re eating even more.
That said, please don’t jump off the deep end.
Up to 80 percent of your diet should be comprised of balanced, nourishing, healthful foods that contain protein and carbohydrates.
The other 20 percent can be those not-so-good-for-you foods.
That seems like a fair compromise, I would say.
Now, I’ve had some clients who take a very all-or-nothing approach to unhealthy foods. They feel like if they have a box of cupcakes in the pantry or a bag of chips that they’ll down the whole thing in one sitting.
If you’re prone to emotional eating, then yes, that very well could happen.
What I recommend is purchasing these foods in smaller quantities.
For instance, you can buy many snack cookies in mini packs, and chips are available in small bags as well.
Don’t feel guilty for falling into bad habits, as it will probably happen. As I said before, overcoming emotional eating is quitting a bad habit, and that is not a linear process.
You will have good days and you will have bad days. The bad days teach you healthier habits, and that’s how you eventually make lasting change.
In the meantime, be patient with yourself!
5. When All Else Fails, Seek Support
Boiling down how to overcome emotional eating is, in a way, oversimplifying what is an extremely complex topic.
Overeating, especially compulsive overeating, is classed as a type of disordered eating, aka an eating disorder.
Some people might be able to overcome eating disorders on their own, but many more require the help of trained professionals such as doctors, nutritionists, and therapists.
You might find that some of the tips in this guide help you curb your overeating but don’t altogether stop it.
You might also discover that for as much as you want to stop emotional eating, you find yourself unable to. You just keep falling back into the same bad habits over and over again.
If so, then I wouldn’t recommend you keep trying the same thing. Rather, I would seek help.
I don’t mean your friends or family, either. As well-meaning as they are, they probably don’t understand emotional overeating to its fullest extent. You could get conflicting messages that make recovery seem impossible.
I’m referring to professional help.
There is no shame in admitting you need help, especially when it comes to an eating disorder like compulsive overeating.
Whether you see someone for weekly sessions (or more frequent than that) or you enter a program, you will be equipped with the tools and professional support you need to reduce your instances of overeating.
Emotional eating is something we all do from time to time. The real trouble comes when you use your emotions to guide your diet more often than your hunger or nutritional needs.
Eating when you’re not hungry and choosing nutritionally poor foods can eradicate your weight loss goals and put you further than ever from the finish line.
Although not always easy, overcoming emotional eating is possible. Whether the tips in this article help you, you seek professional support, or it’s even a combination of both, you can control your eating and begin really enjoying the foods you consume!