5 ways to take charge of emotional eating

Food can seem like a quick, easy fix to feel better in stressful times, but emotional eating could derail your healthy habits. Here's how to tackle it head on.
Published 16 September, 2018

When life gets tough, you turn to food. Sound like you?

When daily life is challenging, food can be a quick, easy fix to feel better in stressful times. While it's important to enjoy food, using it as a tool to combat negative emotions - like stress, sadness, boredom or anger - can scupper your healthy eating habits.

The following five tips can help you step away from food when you’re feeling emotional. 

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1. Figure out what you're feeling

First, determine if your desire to eat is true hunger or something else. Is your stomach growling? If not, dig deeper to identify the trigger (the sight and smell of food can elicit an emotional response, too). ‘If you name it, you can tame it,’ Daniel Friedland, CEO of SuperSmartHealth, advises. ‘If you’re feeling anxious and tense, just repeating “anxious, anxious, nervous, nervous” out loud is powerful.’

RELATED: How to tell if you're actually hungry

2. Practice putting space between thoughts and actions

When you delay stopping by the office snack table in response to a tense run-in with a co-worker, you give yourself the freedom to make a different choice. But it takes practice. The next time you feel anxious, challenge yourself to see how long you can embrace the emotion, says Evan Forman, psychology professor at Drexel University. ‘See if you can welcome it for two minutes,’ Evan says. For example, try saying, ‘I know what this is and I can handle it,’ instead of saying, ‘A muffin would make me feel better.’

3. Take a long, slow inhale

Deep breathing may be one of the most effective strategies you can adopt to help lessen the intensity of strong emotions, says Abby Braden, assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University. ‘When you’re anxious, your breath quickens. But breathing into your diaphragm may reduce levels of tension and stress. It helps take the edge off that negative feeling, lets you reframe how you’re thinking about it, and helps you get through that moment without eating.’

RELATED: The 3 minute meditation exercise anyone can do

4. Mind your thoughts

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by thoughts of what you’d like to indulge in. But what is a thought, really? Remind yourself that your thoughts are fleeting experiences that have no real power over you. ‘A craving is just words or activity in the brain,’ Evan says. ‘You’re imagining how good something will taste. Similarly, if you break down what it means to be sad or mad or ashamed into component parts, you’ll realise it’s merely feeling anxious or having your muscles tense up or your breathing speed up.’

5. Keep some distance

Another trick: Don’t identify with the thoughts directly, so you have some distance to make a good decision. ‘It’s the difference between “I’m angry” versus “I notice that I’m having angry thoughts,”’ Daniel says. ‘That way, you’re not swept away by what you normally do when you’re angry. If you can mindfully notice those angry feelings, you put yourself into that gap where you can notice and choose.’