One of the biggest problems that holds people back from successfully losing weight is emotional eating.
Often emotional drinking too.
Does this sound familiar…
‘Right, let’s do this! No more messing around, starting the diet, gonna stick to it.’
‘Yess, I feel awesome! No carbs, no fat, just ate protein and veg, did a workout, nailed my water… winning’
‘Man that was a stressful day… so much work, kids playing up… but I’m sticking to it. Must. Keep. Going.’
‘More stress! And God I’m tired. I need some chocolate. Just one a couple of pieces. Oh it’s like a hug in my mouth. Maybe a couple more pieces. Oh look there’s those biscuits I’d forgotten about. May as well have those too now…’
‘Kinda ruined it yesterday… and today is hard work too. It’s been a really tough week. I really just need a takeaway and a glass of wine. Ok bottle. Screw it, it’s the weekend now. I’ll just have whatever I want and start again on Monday…’
It’s a vicious cycle right? And an easy one to fall into.
Life can be busy and stressful, and food is always there when you need it.
It’s a distraction, a comfort, like having 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 overeating.
This article will look at how to help you put an end to this problem.
Why do we end up emotional eating?
When you were a child, do you remember how great it felt to be given sweets because you’d been good?
Or how comforting it was to have chocolate when you fell over and grazed your knee?
Or how exciting it was (and possibly still is) to eat cake with all your friends on your birthday?
From a very young age, we are taught that food means happiness, reward, comfort, and fun.
We celebrate birthdays with cake, good news with champagne, promotions with a meal out.
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.
Food is pretty much everywhere we go. And it’s marketed and designed to make us feel happy, warm, like we’re having a big hug when we eat it.
Why your brain likes emotional eating
Our brain loves a quick solution to a problem. It also loves creating shortcuts, so if it finds something that feels good, it will automatically instruct you to do it again next time.
Even if the enjoyment was only temporary (then you felt a bit sick and even more unhappy that you overate) all your brain remembers is ‘felt sad, ate chocolate, felt better’. So it creates a neural pathway to help you eat chocolate again next time you feel sad.
Neural pathways make you have 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.
Our 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.
Speak to yourself with kindness, the way you would to your best friend or child. What would you say to soothe them? Do the same for you.
Tell yourself you can have whatever you’re craving, if you just wait 15 minutes first and decide if you really truly want it. This important – you’re not saying you ‘can’t’ have it, you are actually allowing yourself to eat it as long as you wait for a short time first.
Often by simply getting curious about your thoughts, you will find the craving starts to lose some of it’s power.
If you still want it after 15 minutes, have it, guilt-free.
The goal here is to slow the process down and train your brain that it’s ok to actually feel the emotion, and not immediately stuff it down with food.
By practising this, you will gain calm, awareness and control. If you still end up eating, that’s ok. It takes practise and compassion to make this work. Stay curious, keep practising, and keep looking for other ways to feel happier and calmer in the moment. Some ideas for this are coming up below.
Don’t restrict or follow a strict diet.
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.
No foods are good or bad by themselves, and you don’t need to cut anything out to lose weight.
To enjoy a healthy relationship with food, remove fear and add freedom.
Keep reminding yourself that nothing off limits – you’re just choosing healthy options most of the time, but you have the freedom to eat anything you want, whenever you really want it. Balance and moderation will always be key to success.
Planning helps enormously with this – see the next point below. And while freedom is key, it can also be very helpful to keep trigger foods out of the house so you have less temptations to deal with.
Set up your environment for success and do what makes life easiest for you.
Make a food plan for each day
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.
Every decision drains a little more of your willpower and leaves you open to choosing cookies followed by chocolate, instead of a healthy snack followed by dinner.
Plan your meals so you have healthy options available and quality nutrition to fuel your day.
Plenty of protein, lots of veg, a bit of healthy fat, and some natural good quality carbs will all help to give you energy and stop the blood sugar rollercoaster that often leads to cravings.
Have a backup 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.
When you have this much routine, you can also plan in your favourite ‘treats’ a few times each week, really enjoy them, and know that you are in control, kicking ass, and still making progress towards your goals.
Now that is a win.
Recognise (and stop) the all or nothing mindset.
‘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.. .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.
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’ really does not help.
Take the labels away, enjoy the damn food (preferably as slowly and mindfully as possible), 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 delicious, enjoy it! Savour every bite.
Food is a pretty wonderful thing, and when you let yourself slowly and mindfully eat it guilt-free, you tend to enjoy the experience a lot more, and actually eat a lot less in the long run.
Have self-compassion every time you emotionally eat.
Emotional eating often comes hand in hand with guilt, worry, stress, and shame.
Let’s approach it from a different angle – self-love, compassion, kindness and being your best friend (not worst enemy).
Don’t beat yourself up when things go wrong.
First, no one is perfect – we all mess up and most of us eat our feelings now and again.
Second, it’s a brilliant opportunity to learn and grow.
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? 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 walk.
Have a meditation app on your phone – Calm is 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.
Often when we hear ‘self-care’ we think about massages and spa days.
These are wonderful, but sadly not likely to happen often.
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
Which of these you could improve?
Small acts done simply to make you happy can make a huge difference too. Right now I’m loving buying daffodils to brighten up the living room, and many of my clients do the same.
Buying some gorgeous-smelling shower gel, scented candles, a new book to read, painting your nails, taking yourself out for coffee or a walk somewhere beautiful are all inexpensive ways to show yourself some much-deserved love.
Focus on taking the best care of YOU that you can, and your eating habits (and therefore your weight) 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 structure and routines around times that you struggle. Look out for the all or nothing mindset creeping in. Enjoy food. Make life awesome. Reduce stress. 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.