Do you struggle with emotional eating?
It’s a very common problem.
Life can be busy and stressful, and food is always there when you need it.
It’s a distraction. A comfort. A nice big hug.
But of course it only makes you feel good (or just numbs whatever you were feeling before) in the moment.
And then you still have the original problem to deal with, plus the guilt and frustration that comes with overeating.
Before we start, something I stress to my online clients. Please don’t feel ever guilty or ashamed for emotional eating. Or binge eating. Or any type of eating. You are not flawed or broken. You haven’t messed up.
Your brain is simply following a pattern it has learned. Armed with the tools of awareness, self-compassion and patience, it’s a pattern you can change.
This article will look at how to help you do just that.
Why do we end up emotional eating?
From a very young age, we are taught that food means happiness, reward, comfort, and fun.
We get given chocolate when we’re good, celebrate birthdays with cake, and go out for dinner on special occasions.
As we grow older we spend virtually the entire month of December eating and drinking to celebrate Christmas.
Then we get really drunk to enjoy New Year.
As well as being there for all the good things in life, food and alcohol are quick and easy solutions to any negative emotions too.
Our brain loves a quick solution to a problem. And it loves creating shortcuts. So if it finds something that feels good, it will instruct you to do that again next time.
Even if the enjoyment was only temporary (then you felt a bit sick and even more unhappy that you overate) the conclusion your brain comes to is: ‘felt sad, ate chocolate, felt better’.
So it creates a neural pathway to remind you to eat chocolate again next time you feel sad.
Neural pathways can trigger a strong urge to repeat the behaviour again, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow the urge. If you recognise and plan for it, you can create a new pathway that serves you a lot better.
How to stop emotional eating
So now we know all this, how do we actually stop eating to feel better? These are some top tips.
Let yourself feel the emotion
Your brain doesn’t like physical or emotional pain. So as soon as you feel sad or tired or angry, it triggers ‘FOOD!’ to help you feel better.
In the moment that happens, try this.
Let yourself actually feel the emotion underneath.
Don’t resist it. Don’t feel bad about it.
Just sit with it for a few minutes and observe the thoughts and feelings you have.
Often we have a fear of sitting with the urge. We want to suppress it immediately. The brain needs to be trained that nothing bad will happen from looking calmly at the emotion and the reasons for it. Observation and curiosity are key words here. No shame or judgement.
See yourself as a scientist or detective, looking to uncover the facts of the situation.
And speak to yourself with kindness, the way you would to your best friend or child. What would you say to soothe them? Try doing the same for you.
Wait 15 minutes before emotional eating
Tell yourself you can have whatever you’re craving, as long as you wait 15 minutes first.
This is important – you’re not saying you ‘can’t’ have whatever you desire. You are actually allowing yourself to eat it as long as you wait for a short time first.
Often by giving yourself that breathing space and getting curious about your thoughts, you will find the craving begins to fade.
If you still want it after 15 minutes? Go ahead and have it, guilt-free.
The goal here is to slow the process down and train your brain that it is OK to feel the emotion, and not immediately stuff it down with food.
By practising this, you gain calm, awareness and control. If you still end up eating, that’s ok too.
Stay curious, keep practising, and keep looking for other ways to feel happier and calmer in the moment.
Don’t restrict or follow a strict diet
If you are prone to emotional eating or binge eating, do not follow a restrictive diet.
No foods are good or bad by themselves, and you don’t need to cut anything out to lose weight.
Keep reminding yourself that nothing is off limits. You’re just choosing healthy options most of the time, because they make you feel great and help you achieve your goal. But you have the freedom to eat anything you want, whenever you really want it.
Overly restricting yourself tends to lead to rebellion. It also tends to lead to bingeing on the very food you’re trying to avoid as soon as you get stressed.
Balance and moderation are not ‘sexy’ solutions, but they will take you to where you want to be.
Keep trigger foods out of the house
In the long term, the goal is to be around any food and feel fully in control.
But in the early stages of change, it can help you a lot to keep tempting foods (that you are likely to emotionally eat) out of the house.
You can still go out to get whatever you want if you so desire, but the barrier of having to leave the house to buy it is often enough to put you off.
If tempting foods are not available you can spend that time processing what’s really going on instead.
Set up your environment for success and make it easier for yourself to stay on track.
Important point here – don’t tell yourself (or other people) that you ‘can’t be trusted’ with certain foods in the house. You need to be telling yourself you can be trusted, you are in control, you’re just choosing not have them in the house right now.
Over time as you build confidence in yourself and see progress, practise being around these tempting foods. Your new story now is that they don’t have power over you, and you have better ways of dealing with emotions. You are making positive changes and you are in control.
Make a food plan for each day
One of the simplest and most effective tools for weight loss. And extremely helpful to combat emotional eating.
It’s crazy how much difference structure, routine, and a daily plan can make to your success.
Life is far too busy and temptation-filled to be able to wing it and make choices on the fly. Without a plan, your brain has to make numerous extra decisions throughout the day.
‘What should I eat at this meal? How much of that should I have? Oh no! Someone’s brought in cookies. I’m hungry and I don’t have a snack with me. One won’t hurt…’
It’s very draining!
Often without a plan, your body doesn’t get the nourishment it needs.
You might get busy and go a long stretch without eating. Or you might not get the quality nutrients your body requires in the meals you grab on the go.
Either way, suddenly your blood sugar drops. You might feel weak or just suddenly ravenously hungry. At this point, your brain wants the quickest and easiest solution to the problem. And you’ll find yourself hunting through the cupboards for sugary snacks.
To combat this, make a plan. Here’s how to do that.
A simple food plan
Plan your meals so you have healthy options available and quality nutrition to fuel your day.
Remember it doesn’t need to be perfect… it needs to be realistic. Quick and easy options that you will actually eat.
To nourish your body:
- Protein in each meal
- Fruit and veg throughout the day
- Half the plate filled with veg at dinner
- 1 – 2 servings of healthy fats (avocado, salmon, olive oil, nuts, seeds, nut butters, eggs)
- 1 – 2 servings of quality carbs (oats, wholemeal bread, potato, sweet potato, beans, pulses, wholegrain rice)
That’s a framework to follow – don’t worry if you don’t hit it exactly every day.
Getting close to that framework will provide your body with an abundance of nutrition to keep you full, energised and winning your day.
Plan in easy back-ups too. Have a ready meal available that you can bung in the oven. Or something you can knock up really fast if you get home too tired to faff around cooking.
And don’t forget to factor in your favourite ‘treats’ a few times each week too. Most importantly, enjoy them, knowing that nothing is off limits. You are in control.
Recognise the all or nothing mindset that leads to emotional eating
‘If I want to lose weight I must be on a diet, doing it perfectly and seeing the scales go down every week… otherwise, I am failing, there is no point, and I must eat everything!’
Sounds pretty illogical right? But this is what so many of us seem to do!
If you’ve been ‘all or nothing’ for your whole life… it doesn’t matter. You can still change.
Teach your brain that it doesn’t need to be so strict – there IS a middle ground.
One of the best ways to do this is to remember:
No matter how far off-track you go, all you ever need to do is make your next choice a great one and you’re right back on it again.
It’s not the off-plan meal that does the damage.
What causes the damage is thinking you’ve ruined it, and continuing to eat off plan for days after.
So, remind yourself you cannot mess this up as long as make your next choice a great one and carry on.
Then… make your next choice a great one and carry on.
Remember no foods are ‘good’ or ‘bad’
Everything really is fine in moderation.
Labelling foods as ‘bad’, ‘fattening’ or ‘naughty’ does not help.
Take the labels away, enjoy the delicious food (slowly, mindfully, guilt-free), and move on.
When you have something you think is bad, listen to your thoughts. What would be a better thought to think?
If it’s something you love, enjoy it! Savour every bite.
Because food is a wonderful thing.
When you consciously appreciate it without feeling guilty, you find balance. You get to enjoy the experience. And you’ll be less likely to overeat because you know you haven’t been ‘bad’ and nothing is off limits. You can have it again whenever you really want it.
Be kind to yourself
Emotional eating is often followed by guilt, shame, and general beating oneself up.
You need to practise responding with kindess and self-compassion.
Whenever you emotionally eat, you have an opportunity to learn something and help your future self.
With my online coaching clients, I give them a reflection sheet to fill in when they experience overeating. This prompts them to look for patterns and create strategies to help.
Journaling your thoughts can also be extremely helpful.
If you find yourself reluctant to look back at what happened, it’s probably because you are judging yourself for it.
Judgement and self-criticism waste time that could be spent learning. You can choose not to do that.
See it as a challenge that you are now willing to embrace.
Be prepared to slip up another 1000 times if you need to.
If you are emotional eating anyway, actually taking the time to reflect and learn from it can only lead to things getting better.
Every time you do that you take a step closer to being successful, in control, and free. How amazing will that feel?
Make life as awesome as possible
If you have lots of other things going on that keep you excited, focused and happy, the need to seek comfort and distraction through emotional eating will often fade away.
You are in charge. You are the star of your life show. How do you want things to be?
What would you like more of in your life? Also, what would you like less of?
What actions can you take to feel like you’re making progress?
Are there trips or adventures you’ve always wanted to go on?
Get excited about life and start making things happen.
Reduce stress to combat emotional eating
Have some strategies lined up to reduce stress both in the moment and for the long term.
What besides food makes you feel good?
If you wanted to make your best friend feel better, how would you go about it?
- Make your favourite cup of tea (maybe you could get a soothing herbal one that you associate with feeling calm)
- Download a favourite song or playlist so it’s ready to play on your phone
- Call a friend
- Go for a short walk
- Have a meditation app on your phone – Calmis a brilliant one.
- Take up yoga – you could do some at home with a DVD or youtube if you don’t have time to get to a class.
- Stop saying Yes to things! Learn ‘No’ as a default answer, and delegate as much as possible.
- Keep a journal
- Write down 3 things you’re grateful for every day
- Get focused on a project that means something to you
- Plan your next holiday or adventure
Here are some fundamentals that count as self-care:
- getting enough sleep
- eating nutritious food
- regular exercise (or at least movement)
- regular quiet time
- positive self-talk
- quality time with people you love
These are easy to neglect when life gets busy. If you notice one or more of these have slipped, ask this question:
What’s one action I can take this week to improve that?
Here are some other ways to treat yourself:
- Buy yourself flowers
- Buy your favourite hand soap or shower gel
- Treat yourself to a new book
- Give yourself a manicure or pedicure
- Take yourself out for coffee or lunch
- Go for a walk somewhere beautiful
Focus on taking the best care of YOU that you can, and your eating habits will often improve as a by-product.
There are so many ways in which you are awesome. Look for them, celebrate them, and make yourself feel great as often as possible.
It’s not selfish to take care of yourself. Focus on becoming the best, healthiest, happiest version of you so you are in the best position to help others do the same.
To sum up how to stop emotional eating…
It’s not always a quick and easy solution, but it IS something you can change and gain control over.
The key is to be kind to yourself, always.
Curiosity and compassion instead of judgement and self-criticism.
Look back through the ideas above and see what you can put into action.
Practise feeling the emotion before eating it.
Build habits, plans and routines that serve you.
Look out for the all or nothing mindset creeping in.
Make life awesome.
Practise self-compassion and self-care.
I hope this helps and I’d love to hear your feedback.
I work on a lot of these strategies with coaching clients, so if you have any questions or need any help, feel free to contact me HERE.