How can I curb emotional eating?

As children we were loved, soothed, bribed, celebrated and rewarded with food. We win the T-ball game and are rewarded by going out for pizza. We’re told that if we behave we’ll get a doughnut for being good. We celebrate our birthdays with cake and ice cream. On each of these occasions, an intricate network of brain systems and neurotransmitters is hard at work encoding these experiences. Each time, your brain lays down neural tracks connecting its reward center, the part of the brain that makes you feel pleasure, to its memory centers. Over time, these nerve cell connections become strengthened and eventually they become so embedded within your brain that they become habits, essentially unconscious responses. Feel bad -- eat a cookie -- feel better. Do something good -- eat pizza -- feel great.

It’s no wonder so many of us turn to food when we feel stressed, frustrated, mad, sad, fearful, anxious or even happy. For many of us, emotional eating has been encoded in our brains since we were small children. For others, the encoding is tied to a traumatic event or series of events, such as physical or emotional abuse, an accident or witnessing a disaster. During times of heightened stress, the brain’s memory centers shift into overdrive and the events, the emotions, and the way you ate to soothe yourself become etched into your unconscious. This can create a pattern of emotional overeating that you will feel compelled to repeat over and over again.Your conscious mind knows what you need to do to lose weight -- eat right and exercise, for example -- but your unconscious mind fights back. It resists rewriting that code that has been laid down over years and years. To get off the emotional overeating rollercoaster, you have to address this struggle by looking into your unconscious mind and address why you are compelled to eat for emotional reasons.

I have an entire book about emotional eating, but here are the highlights:
  • Identify your relationship with food.
  • Boost your brain’s health so you are better able to rewire it.
  • Determine your motivation to change.
  • Use behavioral therapy tools to correct the negative thoughts that sabotage your efforts.
  • Learn new strategies to calm your stress, such as exercise.
  • Keep a food journal and write down everything that you eat.
  • Learn how to prevent people, places, and things from triggering your emotional overeating.
Dr. Mike Dow, PsyD
Addiction Medicine
Watch as Dr. Mike Dow discusses why emotional eating is an issue and how you can curb it. 

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
To avoid emotional eating, try to identify what triggers you to engage in this unhealthy behavior. Many people eat when they feel stressed out or burdened by unpleasant emotions, such as sadness or anger. For others, opening the cookie jar or ordering a pepperoni pizza is a way to fight boredom.

If you find yourself eating when you're not hungry, try to figure out why. Keeping a food diary may help: Write down what you eat every day and how you feel at the time. If you eat when you're uptight and anxious, find a way to lower your stress, such as meditation or yoga. Are you filling up on junk food to pass the time? Take up a hobby. Many people find that emotional support from a group such as Weight Watchers helps them to control emotional eating.
Karen R Koenig

Improving self-care is one of the major tasks ahead of you. The other is not turning to food when you’re stressed or going through any kind of emotional discomfort. By improving self-care techniques, you’ll reduce stress some, but you still have to work on resolving your eating problems if you want to lead a happy, healthy life. My first suggestion is to stop dieting and obsessing about weight and, instead, throw your energy into learning to eat “normally.” I recommend my book The Rules of “Normal” Eating: A Commonsense Approach for Dieters, Overeaters, Undereaters, Emotional Eaters, and Everyone in Between! which is full of excellent information about nearly every aspect of your relationship with food and your body.

In a nutshell, along with learning to manage your feelings without food, you’ll need to learn to eat only when you’re hungry, choose satisfying foods, eat with awareness and enjoyment, and stop when you’re full or satisfied. This may seem like a tall order for someone with a lifetime of food struggles. Dieting isn’t the long-term answer. The majority of people who diet to lose weight regain it, often putting back on more pounds than they originally lost. Moreover, dieting sets up your body for conserving calories and rebound eating. The only way out of the diet-binge cycle is to teach your appetite to regulate your food intake. This process is learnable over a period of many months to a few years. It’s not a quick fix, but it definitely does work. The nondiet approach to weight loss has been around since the late 1970s and is a slow but steady process that moves you toward achieving and maintaining a comfortable, healthy weight for life.

I learned to become a “normal” eater myself many decades ago and have practiced it ever since. I don’t do it perfectly but am proud to say that I’m no longer an emotional eater. My weight is stable and I don’t obsess about food, but the best bonus is that my emotions are now available to steer me toward health and happiness.

The process of curbing emotional eating may take some time so try to be patient. It's taken many years to develop the habit of emotional eating and curbing it will take some time and patient. Some alternatives may work and others might not. Some alternatives may take you running back to eating because in some situations you may have to 'deal' with the issue for the first time; ever. 

To curb emotional eating you must want to change the behavior and find an alternative method of coping with things that come up in your life versus using food. 

If you've made the decision to curb your emotional eating the first step is to find out when you 'emotionally eat'. For example, do you eat when you are feeling anxious about a work project or the date that hasn't called you back? Once you begin to have a sense of when you emotionally eat you can find alternatives to using food. 

Judith Beck, PhD

Chronic dieters often have beliefs about emotional distress and eating that interfere with losing weight or keeping it off. They express the ideas in the following ways: "If I'm upset, the only way I can calm down is by eating." "If I'm upset, I deserve to eat."

To address the first idea, I ask dieters about people they know who don't have a weight problem. What do they do when they're upset? Dieters frequently feel stymied--they simply don't know. After polling hundreds of people, I've found that people who don't struggle with their weight do lots of things when they're upset: they call a friend, take a walk, tolerate the feeling and return to whatever they were doing, practice relaxation or mindfulness exercises, try to solve the problem that is upsetting --or they distract themselves (surf the web, write emails, play a video game, do a puzzle, listen to soothing music). This group has a different idea about emotional distress: that it is temporary, normal, tolerable, and will diminish.

To address the second idea, "If I'm upset, I deserve to eat," I get across the message that dieters deserve to feel better but that eating will only give them temporary relief. Once the food is gone, they'll still have the initial problem that led to distress plus they’ll feel badly about having overeaten. I help them see that they have a choice: They can eat whenever they’re upset (and fail to lose weight or keep it off) or they can tolerate their distress or actively work toward reducing their distress in other ways (which greatly increases the probability that they will lose weight and maintain their weight loss).

I then work with dieters to create a list of compelling activities they can engage in when they’re upset and they quickly find out that they can self soothe in other ways.

If you want to lose weight, eat for hunger's sake. Before eating a snack, ask yourself, "Why am I eating this?" If you're eating because you're truly hungry, go ahead. But if you're eating for other reasons -- such as boredom, loneliness or stress -- do something else instead. Don't rely on food to be your main source of entertainment, companionship or comfort.
Vandana  R. Sheth
Nutrition & Dietetics

Key steps to curb emotional eating include:

  • Maintain a food and emotions journal to better identify when emotional eating occurs
  • Create a list of alternative activities for when you start experiencing strong emotions and are not actually physically hungry
  • Have a support system (family, friends, health care team)
  • Learn to understand signs of true physical hunger
  • Enjoy more mindful and conscious eating experiences rather than distracted meals/snacks
  • Enjoy all foods in moderation
  • Focus on the positive and enjoy time spent with family/friends during mealtimes

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.