Many people struggle with emotional eating. This article will explore some powerful coping strategies and techniques to help you overcome emotional eating.
What is emotional eating? Emotional eating is when we turn to food as a way to cope with our emotions, whether it’s stress, sadness, boredom, or anxiety. This could look like eating for comfort, eating to provide stress relief, eating to feel less lonely, eating to escape sadness, or eating to reward yourself. Although emotional eating is completely normal from time to time for everyone, it becomes an issue if it’s the main way you cope with emotions day to day. Emotional eating may push you to ignore your body’s hunger or fullness cues, like eating when you aren’t hungry or until you’re stuffed.
Physical hunger versus emotional hunger.
The first step to overcoming emotional eating is understanding how emotional hunger is different from physical hunger.
- Physical hunger comes on gradually and doesn’t feel urgent. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly and feels urgent like you need to satisfy it immediately.
- Emotional hunger isn’t easily satisfied and can cause you to want more, even on a full stomach continuously. Physical hunger is more easily satisfied once you have a full stomach.
- Physical hunger isn’t picky and will usually accept a variety of foods, depending on what’s available. Emotional hunger is typically specific for a particular food, and it feels like you need that certain food at all costs.
- You can feel physical hunger in your stomach, sometimes grumbling, emptiness, or even hunger pains. Emotional hunger is a craving that starts in your head.
If you have been out of touch with your hunger and fullness cues for a while, it can take time and practice to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger.
Use a food and mood journal to build self-awareness.
An effective strategy to build insight into emotional eating and become more self-aware is keeping a food and mood journal. Write down your feelings and the circumstances surrounding any instances of eating. Start by asking yourself, “Am I physically hungry, or am I using food to cope with my emotions?” Then, take a moment to identify your emotions. You can customize your food and mood journal based on your unique situation. Some common items you can track:
- Record what you are eating, including estimated portions.
- Describe what occurred before eating. This might be a situation, place, or feeling.
- Evaluate your mood, hunger level, and fullness level before eating.
- Record any relevant thoughts you noticed while you were eating.
- Evaluate your mood, hunger level, and fullness level after eating.
Over time, you can look at your food and mood journal to help you build insight regarding patterns and triggers. Once you identify patterns or triggers, finding healthier ways of coping with your emotions is easier.
Find more helpful ways to cope day to day.
Deep breathing or mindfulness meditation. When you feel heightened, uncomfortable feelings, pause and take a few deep breaths. Deep breathing can help you soothe and center yourself and think more clearly. Try inhaling for a count of four, holding for four, and exhaling for four. Mindfulness meditation is another practice that can help you become more in tune with your body and emotions, making it easier to choose healthier coping mechanisms. This can help you to be present and non-judgmental, which is important when working on your relationship with food. Check out Sworkit’s Mindfulness + Meditation collection to practice mindfulness.
Nurture yourself. Engage in self-care activities that are meaningful to you. Go for a walk in nature, explore the outdoors, listen to music, take a soothing bath, read a book, connect with a friend, or turn to an activity you enjoy.
Support yourself with healthy habits. You are more likely to effectively deal with life’s stressors when you are well-rested, adequately fueled with food, physically strong, hydrated, and relaxed. Make exercise, in ways that you enjoy, a daily priority. Make activities that relax you or allow you to unwind a daily priority. Stay hydrated, and make sure you are nourishing yourself with well-balanced meals and snacks, even on the busiest of days. Be sure to sleep at least 8 hours.
Lean into your feelings and lean into support. Confide in a friend or family member you are comfortable with about what you’re experiencing. Building a support system can be a game-changer in your journey to healthier habits. If you are still struggling despite using self-help options, consider working with a therapist or registered dietitian. A therapist can help you move towards more effective ways of coping with your emotions based on your unique situation. A registered dietitian can help you work on your relationship with food while ensuring you nourish yourself adequately to meet your goals.
Overcoming emotional eating takes time.
Emotional eating can turn into a cycle…experiencing something that creates uncomfortable feelings, wanting to avoid facing feelings head-on, using food as a quick fix to cope, maybe feeling guilt or shame, and then…repeat the cycle.
Overcoming emotional eating is a challenge, but it’s one you can conquer
Overcoming emotional eating is a process that can take time, especially when you are consistently stuck in the cycle. Be patient and compassionate with yourself. There will be setbacks, but they are just detours on your path to a better relationship with food. You can stop the emotional eating cycle by combining self-awareness, better understanding and responding to your hunger and fullness cues and finding healthier ways to cope with emotions.
If you need a more individualized approach to overcoming emotional eating based on your unique situation, seek the expert help of a therapist or registered dietitian. Believe in yourself, take small steps, and soon, you’ll discover healthier and more effective ways to cope with your emotions.