Stop Emotional Eating Now

Comfort food: It’s an oxymoron. If you’re turning to food to fill voids, calm stressors, celebrate or sulk – it’s time to sever the cord between food and your emotions. Follow Dr. Varma’s plan to stop emotional eating and your addiction to food.

Posted on | By Sue Varma, MD

Step 1: Be Accountable

Be accountable to yourself, to your food and to your loved ones. Don’t eat after hours when no one is around. Avoid having "secret meals." They take on a life of their own and lead to a lot of shame and guilt afterwards.


Keep a food diary of all your meals, Monday through Sunday, on the refrigerator. This way there are no secrets. By you visualizing what you’re eating as well as having to share this information, you are making yourself more accountable and less likely to cheat.

Keep a goal photo of yourself from an earlier time. This picture is not just about achieving the ideal weight, but also to serve as a reminder to when you were happier.

Keep reminders on the door of the fridge: "Do not enter after 9 pm" and "Have you done your safety plan today?" These are some healthy, low-cost things you can do for yourself to prevent the emotional eating.

Step 2: Return to a Routine That Has Worked for YOU

Structure your day including your meals as you did before. Go back to what worked for YOU. Often we look at what works for other people, and that may be fine in the long run – but any time you want to change something fast – know what worked for you.

Make a food calendar: Plan your meals for the week and stick to it. Grocery shop according to your meals and stick to your list. Do not shop for food when you are hungry because you'll only buy high-calorie comfort foods if you do. Keep this food diary on the fridge. Compare it to what you are actually eating. You are less likely to throw in secret meals.


Be realistic about your food choices: If you hate broccoli, this is not the time to develop an appreciation for it by putting it on your calendar for 7 days. Substitute it for another favorite veggie. Add variety.

Don’t deprive yourself – going “cold turkey” on your favorite high-calorie foods may not happen overnight; decrease slowly instead of simply eliminating. I tend to think of food as any other substance that can be abused and may need to be weaned off slowly. For example, if you love desserts, then throw in a favorite dessert or two. However, instead of a pint of ice cream, try 1 cup at first, then 1/2 a cup. See if a low-fat, low-calorie option can be substituted at some point.

Step 3: Mindful Eating

Learn to appreciate food in less than 1 minute. Learning to live in the moment, appreciating every sensory aspect about the food you’re eating slows down your thinking, decreases your anxiety about food and allows you to eat slowly. Studies show that people who eat mindfully also eat less and gain less weight as a result. (Same concept when people tell you to chew slowly and put your fork down in between bites). You’re developing a mindful and deliberate practice to enjoy your food.

Step 4: Develop a Safety Plan

This will go on your refrigerator door. These are behaviors to engage in when you are tempted to go off your food calendar. Here are some ideas:

  • Take a warm bath and add lavender, calming oil and lightly scented candles.
  • Take a 15-minute walk. It will raise your heart rate and improve mood and energy.
  • Have light peppermint oil, which you can apply behind the ears. The scent is thought to improve mood.
  • Listen to your favorite invigorating music and dance for 15 minutes.
  • Drink a cup of green tea.
  • Phone a friend for social support to remind yourself of your accountability and improve your mood.
  • When all else fails, try a light, low-calorie healthy snack that is proportioned at 100 calories. Sugar-free rice pudding is a good example.

Article written by Sue Varma, MD
Board certified Psychiatrist and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, NYU Langone Medical Center