Tips to Stop Emotional Eating

By Dr. Susan Albers, psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Hospital and author of "50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food," "Eating Mindfully," "Eat, Drink & Be Mindful and "Mindful Eating 101."

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Everyone comfort eats now and then. Sometimes it is in small ways, such buying an ice cream cone as a pick-me-up after a stressful day at work or nibbling on chocolate when you are hormonal. While small doses of stress eating aren't necessarily physically dangerous, they can quickly develop into a habit. This habit can lead to weight gain or prevent you from losing weight.  Comfort eating is particularly problematic when it is the primary way you calm and soothe yourself.  The good news is that there are ways to stop comfort eating before it harms you physically and emotionally.  Listed below are 3 common questions about comfort eating.

How Can I Tell if I am Emotionally Eating?
There are 4 tell-tale signs of comfort eating.

  1. You eat when you are not physically hungry. Consider how long ago it was since you ate. Was it 3 hours ago or a half hour? Is your body sending you any clear signals that you are hungry? Is your stomach grumbling? Are you low in energy?
  2. It is hard to find food that satisfies you. For this reason, you don't stop eating when you are full. You may find yourself scavenging for food or eating things you don't even like.
  3. Cravings are triggered by an emotion such as anger, anxiety, or boredom etc.
  4. Comfort eating has a mindless component to it. You may not enjoy or taste the food because you are eating it mechanically, as if in a trance. Imagine sitting in front of the TV mindlessly popping chips into your mouth. 

Why is Food so Comforting?
There are many reasons food can be so seductive in moments of stress.

  • Biology.  When you are stressed out, your body is flooded with cortisol, a stress hormone, which makes you crave carbohydrates, sugar and fatty foods. Food is soothing due to the chemical changes it creates in your body. Chocolate is an excellent example.  Chocolate boosts the "feel good" neurotransmitters and chemicals in your body that make you more alert and excited.
  • Tune Out. Eating can be distracting. It can take your attention away from whatever is bothering you emotionally.
  • Beliefs. You may also be conditioned to believe eating can ease pain. Many media ads push the therapeutic value of food.  For example, a commercial may urge you to buy a particular candy because it will bring you "bliss" or "happiness."
  • Convenience. We enjoy things that are easy and convenient. Vending machines and fast food restaurants are always close at hand when you are fretting.
  • Entertainment. It is difficult for many of us to deal with boredom and anxiety. Preparing food and eating it can be entertaining and fills gaps in time.
  • Good Vibes. Emotional eating may be linked to your childhood. Perhaps home baked cookies or macaroni and cheese automatically trigger positive or comforting memories from the past.


How can I Stop Emotional Eating?

Thankfully, you can break the habit of emotional eating. It takes practice and finding creative, new ways to calm and successfully soothe yourself. The goal is to rewire your brain to identify non-eating behaviors as comforting.

Step One: Be Aware.
Much of emotional eating is so unconscious that it happens automatically or below your awareness. Before you jump into changing this behavior, keep a journal. Write down where and when you stress eat. The office? Late at night? When you are alone? Are there any patterns that you notice? Every time you eat, ask yourself how physically hungry you are on a scale from 1-10.  If you are a 6-10, it's likely that you are physically hungry. A 3, for example, would signify that you are stress eating.

Step Two: Replace.
If you take out stress eating, you have to put something in its place.  Write down a concrete list of all the healthy, non-calorie related activities that give you a quick pick-me-up on a tough day. Here a few simple examples.

  • One-Minute Fix :  Sip black tea. A study in the journal of Psychopharmacology found that subjects who drank black tea experienced a 47% drop in their cortisol levels, the stress hormone that makes you crave food, compared to 27% among the subjects who drank a placebo.
  • One-Minute Fix: If a foot rub would hit the spot better than a snack, try self-message. It can be as simple as sitting down, taking off your shoe and placing your foot over a tennis ball. Rub your feet, one at a time, over the top of the ball until they feel relaxed and soothed. According to the study in the International Journal of Neuroscience , self-massage slows your heart rate and lowers your level of cortisol .
  • One-Minute Fix: Mindless eating soothes raw nerves by numbing out emotions. Munching gives you a moment to zone out from daily commotion and stress. Instead, actively choose a healthy way to clear your mind. Try a quick breathing exercise. Slowing down your breathing can trick your body into thinking you are going to sleep, which in turn relaxes your body. Close your eyes. Stare at the blackness of your eyelids. Slowly breathe in and out. Count each time you inhale and exhale. Continue until you get to 10. 

Step Three: Practice!
There are many ways to calm yourself without calories, such as journaling, meditation techniques, connecting with others, self-message, distraction, guided imagery and ways to pamper your senses. Try out these techniques when you aren't craving food so you get them down pat before you really need them! You wouldn't want to learn how to swim in rough water. Nor do you want to learn the art of soothing yourself without food on a very stressful day. With practice, you can end emotional eating.