Emotional eating is one of the most common struggles that hold people back from reaching their weight loss goals.
We’ve all had our own experiences with emotional eating, where we turned to food for comfort. It’s so common to feel this way that certain foods have been dubbed ‘comfort foods.’ They are the foods we reach for when we’re feeling down.
We struggle with emotional eating because in some ways, it works. It gives us comfort when we need it.
Our brains love doing what they know, and following the path of least resistance.
We get a hit of dopamine when we eat tasty foods filled with sugar and fat – our brains learn this, and form a habit of craving that food.
And so when you feel tired, stressed, frustrated or overwhelmed, your brain will drive you to eat those foods to feel better.
This is a normal response – a habit the brain has learned, and with practise you can change it.
So how do we do that?
The first step is Awareness, and understanding your window of tolerance.
Window of Tolerance
The window of tolerance is the sweet spot between hyperarousal and hypoarousal. When we’re inside it, we’re feeling good. We’re not stressed or anxious or emotionally eating.
The trouble comes when we swing to either hyperarousal (above our window of tolerance) or hypoarousal (below our window of tolerance).
Above the window – feeling stressed and under pressure
In a state of hyperarousal, you can feel as if you’re in a rush or under pressure to go, go, go. You’re doing everything for everyone and can’t seem to calm down.
Feelings like anger and frustration are just beneath the surface, causing you to overreact to situations and people. You find yourself snapping at your loved ones and your thoughts feel unclear.
Food or alcohol is consumed in an effort to get relief or as a way of zoning out. Eating while in this state helps calm our turbulent emotions down.
Below the window – feeling low and worn out
Hypoarousal is on the other side of the ‘window of tolerance’ spectrum. This refers to when you feel low or depressed. You might feel numb or unmotivated as if you’re shutting down from people or the world.
All the things that are going on in your life have you feeling worn down, drained, and exhausted. You feel as though you need support, but you’re not getting it or don’t know how/where to get it.
In hypoarousal, you’ll use food to make you feel better by increasing your energy or giving you comfort.
Whether in hyper or hypoarousal, you end up using food to take you from that state back into the window of tolerance, where you feel safe, comforted, and soothed. It’s as if your body is using food to distract you from your negative emotions.
Understanding your state to manage Emotional Eating
Knowing if you’re in hyper or hypoarousal will help you determine what to do to get back within the window of tolerance.
Below are some suggestions to get you in the window of tolerance before your brain pushes you to reach out for comfort food.
The key is to plan ahead of time to make sure you follow through with these healthy alternatives. Because our brains will want to default to the old tried-and-true method of emotional eating.
But when with a plan in place, one you’ve rehearsed at least mentally, you’ll have an easier time sticking to it.
Plus, the positive feelings you get afterward will help teach your brain to default to this rather than to food.
Managing Stress to Reduce Emotional Eating
Stress is a natural part of our lives and it’s not all bad. We need some level of stress to motivate us or keep us committed to reaching our goals. The trouble comes when we’re constantly under stress with no relief.
Here are some tips that can help you manage stress better.
- Breathwork – This involves consciously slowing down your breathing through deep breathing exercises. Mediation can help you do this as well. Check YouTube or meditation apps like Calm or Headspace for breathing exercises to help you focus on your breath and release tension.
- Doing things you enjoy – Plan fun activities in your schedule. This could be taking some time to garden, knit, listen to music, or even just smell the flowers you buy yourself each week.
- Journaling – Get your thoughts down on paper. There’s no wrong way to do this. Just write what’s in your head. It’s a great way to gain clarity. After writing you can review and ask yourself – which of these thoughts are helpful or true? Is there another way I can think about this that feels better? What can I take action on?
- Rest – Give yourself full permission to sit down, relax, and rest. Perhaps even go outside and spend time walking or sitting in nature.
Boosting Your Mood & Energy to Reduce Emotional Eating
If you’re feeling down and need to boost your mood or energy, try any of the following suggestions to feel better.
- Listen to uplifting music – Put on something that just makes you dance, smile, or just puts you in a better mood.
- Move your body – It doesn’t need to be anything strenuous, just move in a way that feels good. Do whatever exercise you can.
- Plan something exciting – What do you want to achieve that fills you with excitement? Put it on the vision board of your goals. Plan a trip or another adventure, something that you’ll look forward to doing.
- Take any form of positive action – Do something positive. If you want to cook a healthy meal, get the vegetables out of the fridge and ready for use. If you want to clean your house, tidy up just one thing. Perhaps you want to work out, start with doing 10 squats. Then CHOOSE to feel proud about what you were able to accomplish.
- Read – Read just one page of an inspiring book. Or listen to 2 minutes of an inspirational podcast. That short amount of time can give you a key insight or a new perspective shift that’ll get you out of your funk.
More Tips to Help You Avoid Emotional Eating
Meal prepping is another tool you can use to help you avoid emotional eating. For most people, this means planning three meals and 2 to 3 snacks a day. Nothing too complicated.
Remember to include protein with every meal and choose snacks that are either fruit or protein (e.g. boiled eggs, baby bels, or protein shake).
While meal prepping, ensure you also incorporate foods you enjoy, such as chocolates. Then, when you eat, do so intentionally. Don’t eat in a rush or on the go. Take a few breaths before and after your meal to help your body and brain feel calm and relaxed. This will help ensure you enjoy every bite of your meal.
Emotional eating is a habit you’ve formed over the years. It’s a habit that is supported by marketing, movies, our friends, etc. You get bombarded with messages to silence your feelings with food or drink, almost everywhere you turn.
As you’ve probably already realised, this can prove quite a challenge for your health or fitness goals. Dealing with problems using the tips above will help you have better long-term results that don’t affect your health. Try them out to get your emotional eating habits under control.
If you’re interested in learning more about emotional eating and the window of tolerance, check out episode 125 of my podcast:
Various other episodes in my podcast discuss emotional eating too – have a scroll through the title episodes and pick any that look useful for you:
There are also plenty of ideas and inspiration for nutrition, building a healthy relationship with food, strength training, and more, on my Instagram page here:
And to find out more about online coaching, check out more info here: