Emotional eating often conjures images of weepy self-indulgence drowning in ice cream straight from the gallon tub. But people who want to stop emotional eating know that it doesn’t always look that way.
Emotional eating takes on many different dimensions, happens in diverse situations, and doesn’t always feel sad or depressed (because remember, “sad” isn’t the only emotion). And it doesn’t always mean that the food is unhealthy, strictly speaking.
The Reality of Emotional Eating
Emotional eating habits can also look like this:
- Stress eating in the evening after not eating enough during the day
- Serial grazing out of boredom
- Responding to a common trigger to eat – for example, your spouse having a treat/snack, or watching TV
- Overeating at a party or restaurant because you’re having fun and just want to relax
Whether we call it stress eating, emotional eating, or compulsive eating, it’s usually a behavior that is tricky for people to navigate, because it usually upsets someone’s “food plan” for the day, affecting their intentions for weight loss or reforming eating behaviors.
A Human Problem
It is also, hands down, the most common issue that comes up for my clients – many, many people want to stop emotional eating.
But the first thing I want to do with every client is affirm two sides of the issue:
Stop Beating Yourself Up
First, let’s de-stigmatize emotional eating. Let’s stop beating ourselves up about it. It happens. We’re human, and sometimes we eat when we’re not hungry… for many reasons.
Acknowledge the Benefits of Changing
But on the flip side, we also have to acknowledge that building healthier eating habits and stronger self-regulation skills have a huge benefit. Especially if you feel stuck, like you keep making goals and setting intentions and then watch them collapse night after night, there is room for improvement.
Becoming more adept at avoiding emotional eating can not only help your health, but also boost your confidence in yourself (and your agency over your own decisions).
Yet the number one mistake that I see keeping people stuck in emotional eating habits is relying too much on willpower in the moment. Self-control is not going to be your biggest asset – at least, not right away. Once you stop beating yourself up for how “weak” you are, you can take a step back and see that impulsive eating starts not at the moment that self-control lapses, but ten steps beforehand.
Going with a preventative approach, here are three simple steps go a long way to getting unstuck: prepare, nourish, and distract/replace.
3 Steps to Stop Emotional Eating
First, prepare your environment. Be meticulous about getting nutritious, prepared food in your house and minimizing the presence of foods that tempt you. As Gretchen Rubin would say, “make it easy to do right.”
And don’t forget – it’s not just about tossing “trigger foods.” It’s also about making sure that you have healthful, satisfying, tasty food that meets your needs. You’re powering up your kitchen, not just cleaning it out – and this starts at the grocery store.
Remember, you can’t easily eat food you don’t have access to. That goes for both nutritious, essential foods and junkier, unwanted foods. If you want to eat healthier, keep easy, healthy food in the house. If you want to cut out extra treats and sweets, don’t buy them. Sure, you can go out and get them, but the barrier will discourage action.
Secondly, nourish yourself. Take advantage of all the preparation you’ve done, and enjoy your delicious, nutritious foods at regular intervals.
In other words, don’t wait too long to eat, and stick to a regular eating schedule, if possible.
This is a much bigger deal than people realize.
If you struggle with compulsive eating, then I advise not skipping meals or snacks. Instead, keep your blood sugar stable with protein-rich meals and snacks (average every 3 hours). If you know you have a long period of time where eating will be challenging (afternoons are often this way), make sure to plan ahead by packing a protein bar or a yogurt so you don’t get to the point of hanger.
Check out this IG post for ideas for eating more protein:
I even suggest snacking in advance if you know that there is going to be a long period of time where it won’t be convenient or possible to eat. This is a big part of self-care.
Distract and Replace
Finally, use distraction and replacement techniques to mitigate actual “trigger” situations. If you often eat when you’re alone at night, intentionally replace TV-watching with a more active wind-down routine like taking a walk or taking a shower. You know your weaknesses. Create a plan in advance to interrupt the usual cycle of stimulus-response. Experiment with new activities, locations, and distractions. You may also have to get your family on board!
In other words, don’t just sit there and try to use willpower.
There are many other strategies for improving your relationship with food – improving emotional self-regulation, getting more sleep, reducing stress, using mental re-framing techniques, and many others.
Also, exercising regularly (even brisk walking 30 minutes a day) can help significantly with appetite regulation.
But I make a strong argument for starting with the basics – let’s make sure your blood sugar is stable and you’re not setting up no-win situations for yourself, and then let’s go from there.
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