How to Overcome Emotional Eating

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

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Dr. Oz Reveals the Steps to End Emotional Eating (2:47)

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.

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 an 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 is 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 six ways to get your emotional eating under control.

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.

Related: How Stress Hurts Your Health and How to Banish It

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.

Related: 7 Ways to Fall Asleep Faster

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. 

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