How to Overcome Emotional Eating

To understand why you eat your way through tough times, you'll need to identify your triggers.

If you reach for the ice cream scoop every time things get tough, you're not alone. According to the American Psychological Association, 38 percent of adults admit that they've overeaten or eaten unhealthily in the last month because of stress. Just about half of them regretted it later. 

But the first thing you need to know about emotional eating is that the connection may start when you’re young, says social worker Sydney Elggren of St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“To answer why food is so comforting, we have to look at infancy. When an infant cries, they usually need one of three things: food, a diaper change or sleep,” says Elggren. And when you feed them, they are comforted. As children grow older, lollipops, ice cream and other favorite snacks become rewards for things like good behavior at a doctor’s appointment or bringing home a good report card.

“I think it’s the culture we’ve grown up in. We learn that food can be comforting, gratifying and a quick way to change our mood chemistry,” says Elggren.

And that’s not always a bad or negative thing, she says. It’s okay to treat yourself, to occasionally celebrate or to mourn with food, but if that’s the only coping skill you have, it may cause health problems down the road. If candy bars and soda are the only way you can get through a difficult day, you’re at risk of gaining weight and the health issues that can go along with it, such as diabetes. Here are five ways to get your emotional eating under control.

Tip 1: Determine your triggers.

To really understand whether or not you’re an emotional eater, you have to think about the first thing you want to do when you’re triggered by a hardship, says Elggren. “If it’s always a food-related activity, you may have an issue with emotional eating, and that’s something that needs to be addressed.”

While some people avoid food when they are stressed, many others turn to food under pressure. When you’re stressed out, your body produces cortisol, a stress hormone that begs for carbohydrates, sugar and foods high in fat.

Elggren once worked with a female patient who craved a soda every day at 1pm. The person kept track of when her soda cravings hit and realized it was always right before a big meeting with a difficult colleague. Elggren encouraged the woman to engage her coworker more frequently to understand how to better communicate with the person. Once the woman faced her worries and dealt with her difficult coworker, she no longer reached for her afternoon soda. “It wasn’t necessarily the soda itself that she needed, it was the emotions surrounding the time frame,” says Elggren. 

She recommends focusing more on your emotions at hand, and learning how to deal with your stress. You’ll find that those cravings might fade.

Sleep deprivation may cause you to emotionally eat, too. “When we’re sleep deprived we overeat or we eat things that aren't as nourishing for our bodies,” says Elggren. And while more studies are needed to confirm the sleep-eating connection, a small Mayo Clinic study found that people who were sleep deprived ate an additional 667 calories per day compared to those who got adequate sleep. Fall asleep faster with these tips.

Tip 2: Decide whether or not you’re really hungry.

Before you reach for that piece of cake, decide if you’re really hungry. Think about when you ate last, if your stomach is grumbling or if you’re feeling low on energy. Then rate your hunger on a scale from one to 10. If you’re in the six to 10 range, you probably are physically hungry, but anything else is most likely stress related, says Susan Albers, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating issues and mindfulness at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. 

Tip 3: Start writing in a journal.

If you’re trying to shift your mind away from food when the emotional eating tendency strikes, write down the activities you really want to try, recommends Elggren.

“I tell my patients to make a list of ten things that they want to do, and I have them put the list in an area where they typically go to eat food like the pantry, closet or refrigerator,” says Elggren. “You can look at your list, and ask yourself if you want to do something on the list instead of mindless eating.”

If you’re in the habit of going through the drive thru, put the list in your wallet so you’re reminded of other options when you get your money out to pay. It’s okay to choose mindless eating occasionally—we can’t be perfect all the time, says Elggren.

Tip 4: Try these fast tricks.

In addition to your must-do lists, there are a few ways you can beat emotional hunger in the moment.

One study found that people who sipped on black tea lowered their cortisol levels, the stress hormone that triggers food cravings, by 47 percent.  And it turns out a foot rub may lower your cortisol levels, too. Research suggests that self-massages lower your heart rate and cortisol levels.

Deep breathing can relax your mind and turn your attention away from mindless eating. Simply close your eyes, and breathe in and out 10 times.

Tip 5: Keep high calorie snacks out of the house.    

The foods we tend to reach for when we’re emotionally eating are most likely comfort foods like chips, pizza and chocolate.

“I think the reason we tend to choose these types of foods is because they have a mind-altering effect in the moment. Sugar tends to alter our brain. It makes us feel a little better for the time being and gives us some energy. Veggies don’t necessarily do that for us,” says Elggren.

Keep your pantry stocked with healthier foods like fresh carrots with low-fat dip, air-popped popcorn and fresh fruit instead. That way if you do grab a snack, it’s low-cal.

And don’t beat yourself up if you have a slip-up.

While consistent overeating can lead to health problems down the road, if you have the occasional slip-up, don’t be too hard on yourself. If you’re always beating yourself up, you’re more likely to start the emotional eating cycle all over again.

Forgive yourself, and start the new day with a fresh outlook. Stay positive and focus on the progress you are making.

And if you’re having a hard time controlling your emotional eating on your own, see a mental health professional. They can help guide you through a therapy treatment plan that works for you.

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