How to handle emotional eating
Don’t let your emotions affect your food choices.

How to take charge of emotional eating


Imagine a world where emotional eating no longer exists. It’s a good thing to strive for, with research confirming that emotional eating is associated with weight gain and weight regain, amongst people who have successfully lost weight. On the other hand, studies have also discovered that if you can reduce how often you eat in response to your emotions, you’ll enjoy greater weight-loss success and are more likely to keep it off, too. Here’s how to start taking charge.


Food and feelings

If you believe what you see in the movies, drowning your sorrows after a challenging day with ice-cream – and plenty of it, straight from the tub – is not only ‘normal’, it works. But, while there’s no denying that food and feelings can go together, not only are there much more effective ways to ‘feed’ your emotions, it’s possible to retrain your response to emotional triggers and build a healthier relationship with food.


Understand emotions

For most people, food is associated with emotion to some degree. From birth, we’re ‘trained’ to link food with enjoyment, affection and nurturing. For those susceptible to emotional eating, the impact on weight can be significant. In fact, research shows that unsuccessful weight loss often follows a pattern of experiencing stress, eating in response, then gaining – or regaining – weight.

Plus, the results of a US study, which included both overweight and underweight subjects, found heavier participants were more likely to eat in response to negative moods and situations. Still, emotional eating isn’t limited to ‘bad times’. Another study that evaluated eating behaviour in a group of women found that larger meals were eaten in response to both happy and unhappy ‘events’.

So, how to take charge of emotional eating? Developing an awareness of whether and when you might be eating in response to your emotions is the first step, and the next is developing skills and techniques to manage it. These three tips are a good place to start.


1. Figure out what you’re feeling

Determine if your desire to eat is true hunger or something else. Real hunger feels like a gnawing sensation in your stomach, often accompanied by tummy rumbles, depending on how hungry you are. If you find yourself reaching for food without those sensations, drill down deeper to identify the trigger.

One of the best ways to start doing that can be to take a look at your eating patterns over a period of time. Keeping a food diary, where you log or track the food you eat, is a really effective way to do this. By noting what you eat and when, you’ll start to become aware of which moods, feelings and environments may lead you to make certain food choices.


2. Practise putting space between your thoughts and your actions

Once you’ve acknowledged that there are times when you emotionally eat, and you know your triggers, try to delay heading to the fridge in response to the emotions that push your ‘food buttons’. By doing that, you give yourself the freedom to make a different choice. But it takes practise. Experts recommend challenging yourself to see how long you can embrace the emotion, saying ‘I know what this is and I can handle it’, instead of saying, ‘Chocolate would make me feel better’.


3. Find new ways to boost your mood

Often we believe chocolate will make us feel better, but the problem with trying to find comfort in food is that the immediate feel-good factor can rebound, resulting in feelings of guilt, which can lead to more emotional eating. A better bet is to avoid using food to try and boost or soothe your mood, and look for other options instead. Activity produces feel-good endorphins, and there’s nothing like making getting enough sleep a priority, to help create a positive mindset.


Need more help?
If you feel like you need help identifying any emotional eating habits or think there may be larger, underlying psychological links to your emotional eating, talk to your GP.