7 Ways to Take Charge of Emotional Eating

If you use food to soothe feelings, these tips will help you break the stress-eating cycle.
Published June 27, 2017

When life gets tough, you get eating. Sound familiar? If so, the following tips will help you manage your worries without reaching for food. 

1. Recognize the signs

Physical hunger (the grumbling stomach kind) tends to come on slowly, is based on when you last ate, and usually will be satisfied by almost any food, says Allison Grupski, PhD, director of behavior change at WeightWatchers® . Emotional hunger typically comes on quickly, is triggered by emotions such as stress, and often feels like it will be satisfied only by a particular type of food (ice cream, anyone?)

2. Tune into your feelings

Before emotional eating strikes next, take a minute to reflect on your typical patterns. When and where does the urge to stress eat usually occur—say, afternoons at work or late at night at home? What do you reach for? Developing awareness can help you figure out a game plan for those situations and make you more likely to notice when stress eating starts to happen.

3. Modify your environment

Now you can change your environment based on what you’ve recognized about your emotional eating habits. This will make the urge to eat easier to manage next time, says Grupski. What would help the most? For example, you could decide to keep certain snacks out of the house for a few days or keep ZeroPoint™ fruit on your desk at work.

4. Pause and notice

The next time you have an urge to reach for the potato chips, commit to waiting five minutes before snacking. During that time, put “distance” between the impulse to eat and your next move by, say, taking slow, deep breaths or distracting yourself with a quick chore.

5. Be curious

During or right after this pause, try to pinpoint the emotion that’s bubbling to the top. Is it stress? Frustration? Sadness? Even if you can’t identify it exactly, what feels closest?

6. Do something else

Once you’ve named the emotion, ask yourself what else you could do to manage that feeling in the moment. For example, if you’re sad, perhaps you could call a friend. If you’re stressed, listening to a meditation may help.

7. Practice self-compassion

Remember this: Emotional eating happens to all of us! And no one or two instances will break the healthy habits you’re building. Plus, when you're hard on yourself, you may be more likely to feel more stressed, which can make the stress-eating cycle continue. But when you recognize what’s happening and take the time to think about what would be helpful in the situation, you may be more likely to take a different path—even if you're already halfway through that bag of chips.

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