Whether you are happy, sad or stressed, emotional eating is something most of us have experienced. Now don’t get us wrong, it’s totally ok to eat your feelings once in a while. Eating is actually quite effective in providing a temporary sense of comfort, pleasure, numbing, distraction, escape or softening from uncomfortable feelings. But let’s keep it real…emotional eating only gives you short-term relief from suffering and can easily spiral out of control.
There are tons of reasons why people become emotional eaters. If you’ve been abused, emotional eating can lead to some even more stressful health issues like binge-eating disorder, digestive conditions like acid reflux and IBS, and of course weight gain. For a lot of people, the worst part of emotional eating is the intense feelings of guilt and shame after an emotional eating episode. This shame and guilt around food can lead to a number of disordered eating and body image issues.
The bottom line: emotional eating can be a tool to cope with your emotions once in a while, but it shouldn’t be your only tool to deal with uncomfortable feelings.
Keep reading for 4 simple steps to stop emotional eating and start healing your relationship with food.
4 Simple Steps to Stop Emotional Eating
1 – START WITH MINDFULNESS
The first and most important step in stopping or changing any habit, including emotional eating, is mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined as non-judgmental awareness. It’s about being present and paying attention to your mind, body, and surroundings without placing judgement on them.
When we start paying attention to our thoughts, feelings and habits without judgement we can work toward identifying our triggers, understanding our feelings, and taking action to change them.
Here are a few of our favorite strategies to start become more mindful:
Do a food and feelings journal
Instead of wasting your mental energy feeling guilty about emotional eating, take some advice from Jay-Z and “get that dirt off your shoulders.” Write it down! Start collecting as much data as you can about your emotional eating habit. Remember, don’t judge yourself, just notice what is happening and write it down.
Get those thoughts out of your head and onto a piece of paper. Make note of what your triggers were, how you were feeling, what your environment was like, and what you ate. Start to notice trends. Maybe you only emotionally eat when you are home alone after work. Or maybe you realize that you tend to emotionally eat when you are bored at work. Take note of your triggers so you can start to be more prepared for when they happen again.
Don’t know where to start with tracking? Download our Eating Awareness Journal as a guide that will help you stop emotional eating.
A great way to get out of your head and into the moment is changing your environment. You don’t need to go on vacation to get some perspective. Simply get up from your desk, take a walk, work from a cafe, force yourself to take a 15 minute break every hour. Taking breaks helps you to focus on other things that are happening in the moment, like snow falling, construction, a cute baby, a nice pair of shoes…anything outside your intense and sometimes cruel internal dialog.
Meditation is probably one of the most effective ways to cultivate a mindfulness practice in your daily life. There are a ton of great meditation apps out there to help you learn meditation and mindfulness techniques. The Calm App is our favorite, but Headspace, 10% Happier, and Insight Timer are also great options. You can also take meditation classes if you do better in group environments. MDFL, Inscape and the New York Insight Meditation Center are all amazing meditation studios in NYC. Yoga is also a great way to practice mind-body mindfulness.
Use a mindfulness cue
One of the simplest ways to cultivate mindfulness is to use simple cues to remind you to be more present. Use your breath as an anchor to be present by using this breathing exercise:
Inhale for the count of 4
Hold your breath at the top of your inhale for the count of 4
Exhale for the count of 8
The breath is a great mindfulness cue because you’ll always have it as long as you are breathing, but you can also use other cues to remind you to be more present.
You can close your eyes and focus on sound – what do you hear right now in this moment?
Or touch – tap the tips of your thumb with the tips of each finger, feel your feet planted on the ground.
These are all free, simple strategies you can do almost anywhere to help you be more mindful.
2 – IDENTIFY & WORK THROUGH YOUR FEELINGS
People emotionally eat because, well, they are feeling emotional!
Feelings can be overwhelming and difficult to understand. Many harmful behaviors stem from our inability to deal with our feelings in a effective and productive way. Instead of avoiding, ignoring, eating, smoking, drinking, or acting out when we experience intense feelings, we can start looking at feelings as information about our needs.
All humans (yep, that means you and everyone you have ever met) have a set of universal needs that support us in feeling healthy, happy, and fulfilled. When our needs are being met we experience positive feelings like joy, confidence, and inspiration. When our needs are not being met we experience so-called negative feelings like loneliness, frustration, and shame.
So, the first step in learning how to deal with your feelings without emotionally eating is to start getting more comfortable and curious about your feelings. Being clear and identifying your feelings helps you to feel less overwhelmed. For many people simply identifying how they feel helps to resolve those feelings. Clarity and understanding allows you to feel more calm and in control.
Once you identify how you feel you can start to take the steps toward resolving those feelings instead of emotionally eating. To get started on identifying your feelings download our Guide to Understanding your Feelings and Needs that can help you stop emotional eating using the link below.
3 – THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU NEED
Ok so now that you have identified your feelings, the next step is connecting them with your needs. As we mentioned before, our feelings are valuable information about whether or not our needs are being met. When we start to understand the connection between our feelings and our needs, we can make a plan to meet our needs and resolve our feelings in a productive way instead of emotional eating.
We know this can get a little confusing so here is an example of what we’re talking about:
She’s been journaling about her emotional eating habit and realized that she emotionally eats on weeknights when she gets home from work.
Sage used her Guide to Feelings & Needs handout and identified some key feelings in those moments: exhausted and lonely
Next, she used the Guide to Feelings & Needs Handout to connect her feelings with her unmet needs and learned the following:
Sage was feeling exhausted because her need for balance was not being met. She was staying up late, skipping meals throughout the day, and not spending time with friends.
Finally, she was feeling lonely because her need for support was not being met. She lived alone, only saw her friends once a week and lived in a different state than her family.
Want more resources to help you stop emotional eating?
4 – MAKE A PLAN TO MEET YOUR NEEDS WITHOUT FOOD
Once you discover your triggers, feeling and unmet needs you can start strategizing. If you know you emotionally eat at night because you feel lonely, start having dinners with friends at home or at your favorite local restaurant. You can even join or start a supper club or take a cooking class. Make the extra effort to connect with you community more, call or text loved ones who live far away just to stay in touch.
If you emotionally eat because you are feeling exhausted, work on eating more balanced meals throughout the day so you aren’t starving when you get home. Prioritize sleep and have boundaries for yourself around working on the weekends and/or at night. Do mandatory pampering once a week. Sign up for a creative class that meets regularly on the weekends.
Whatever you do, make sure you start small and make one change at a time. Set just one goal for the week and you can build up from there. Make sure your goals are SMART:
Below are a few good examples of SMART goals. I will:
- Make plans to see my friends or family once a week.
- Eat 3 meals a day M – F.
- Set alarms to remind me to eat at 9 am, 12 pm, 3 pm, and 7 pm.
If you need support for you goals ask a supportive friend or loved one to hold you accountable. Even better start working with a dietitian, health coach and/or therapist.