Emotional eating is an extremely common way to manage emotions or unwanted physical feelings (such as stress, anxiety, or pain).
- Food tastes good, is easily available, and is legal.
- Food makes us feel better (at least for a few minutes), comforting and soothing us by stimulating pleasure pathways in the brain.
- Food often has emotional associations, reminding us of good times such as our childhood, our old town, or our visits to grandma.
- Food is a common way to express love or take care of others and can be similarly self-medicated to some degree.
- Food can help us feel more connected to a specific culture or heritage or friends and family.
- Food can also help us feel more disconnected from ourselves through distraction, rebellion, and disassociation.
Using food to manage emotions isn’t a problem
… At least not inherently.
When most people think about emotional eating, they are thinking about the extreme end of the spectrum nearing on disordered eating where someone is bingeing, putting on lots of weight as a result, or it’s causing them further distress.
However, using food to manage emotions is actually pretty normal. Almost everyone does it to some degree.
Ever surprised someone with a birthday cake? Yep, you used food to manage their feelings!
It becomes more of a problem when:
- We do it excessively. Either too frequently, or too extremely, or both.
- We aren’t in control or feel compelled to do it without much choice in the matter.
- We can’t stop ourselves or won’t stop even when full or satisfied.
- We don’t have any other ways of managing our feelings.
The best case scenario is that we use food as a minor tool in our toolbox for managing our emotions amongst a diverse collection of other tools (including healthier ones such as exercise, being creative, talking about our issues, and so on). I will list some other tools that you can use further down.
5 Steps to overcome emotional eating:
Before we dive in, I do want to emphasise that emotional eating is not something that you overcome overnight!
You don’t just read a 5-step-article and then wake up the next morning “cured”. Overcoming emotional eating takes lots of regular practice and patience.
In fact, “overcoming” looks a lot more like making teeeny tiny steps of progress over several months or even years as opposed to never having to deal with emotional eating ever again. I’ve talked about how change is a journey, not an overnight success before and it couldn’t be truer than it is right here.
We do a lot of work on emotional eating in Sleekgeek’s Healthy Habit Coaching Program. Unlike other programs, diets, coaches where you just get given a meal plan or a list of foods not to eat (which tends to further strain your relationship with food rather than help it), the Sleekgeek Healthy Habit Coaching Program helps you work through various scenarios relating to what you eat and why you eat it (Spoiler: It’s got very little to do with having “willpower” or “talent” or “genetics”).
Step 1: Identify why you eat:
Are you truly hungry?
Or… Are you just peck-ish? Are you feeling bored or emotional? Are you eating out of habit and routine? Are you eating because everyone else is eating and it feels like the right thing to do?
If you can get into the habit of consulting with yourself on why you are wanting to eat before each time you eat, then you can better catch yourself before things get too bad.
Eating because you are truly hungry? Great! Eating because you are bored? Not so great. Eating out of habit? Snap out of it and break that habit.
A super simple strategy is to use a Food Journal for a couple of days to a couple of weeks. This involves writing down:
- What you ate.
- When you ate.
- What you were feeling / doing / or thinking when you ate.
You can decide how much detail you want to go into. Doing a detailed food journal can be a great way of getting a good overview of what your diet realistically looks like. However, it can be a lot of work or simply unnecessary and you may just want to say “Lunch – chicken and veg… and a large chocolate.” along with noting down your feelings like “Feeling rushed and anxious at work. Urge to over-eat is strong.”
In particular, notice links between specific thoughts / feelings / situations / behaviours. Focusing on the H.A.L.T. acronym can be useful: Hungry, Angry (or anxious), Lonely, Tired.
These emotions are some of the most common triggers that use people to eat emotionally. Simply asking yourself if you are experiencing any of these emotions whenever you eat is an extremely effective way to identify what your main triggers are so that you can work towards solving them.
Step 2: Identify what foods tend to be your downfall:
The Food Journal mentioned above is also useful at helping you identify what foods you tend to emotionally eat, but it’s also very likely that you already know what they are.
I’m betting it’s not vegetables, right?
Maybe something more like chocolate, or pasta, or rusks, or liquorice… Some people will just eat anything and everything, but for most, it’s specific high-calorie, salty, fatty, or sugary foods.
If you struggle with frequent emotional eating and it happens to be chocolate (for example), then don’t keep chocolate in your house or anywhere nearby if you can help it. That’s just asking for trouble. As your emotional eating improves and you gain additional ways to manage your emotions, you might be able to slowly re-introduce your trigger foods to your household, but for now having a “Clean House Policy” when it comes to them is one of the best things you can do.
So much of our decisions are actually shaped by our environment. If the first thing you see when you walk into the kitchen is a big jar of cookies, you are more likely to eat cookies regularly. If the first thing you see when you walk into the kitchen is a big bowl of fruit and veg, you are more likely to eat fruit and veg. This has nothing to do with willpower, talent, or genetics, and everything to do with your environment.
If you REALLY want it chocolate (or whatever your trigger is) as a planned treat, go out, buy a small appropriate portion, eat it happily and mindfully, then come home back to a nice clean house.
Step 3: Identify your triggers for emotional eating:
Apart from specific food cravings, are you triggered by certain feelings, emotions, environments, people around you, or times of day?
If you can identify these triggers, then you can either do your best to avoid them (just like with the trigger foods above), or plan ahead to mitigate the damage.
Avoid that route past the petrol station coming home from work where you like to buy some liquorice. Spend less time around those people who you tend to binge drink with and then visit Mc Donalds at 2am. If you know you are going to be stressed and working late, make sure that you have a bunch of healthy, tasty, and easy to eat foods available like fruit, protein shakes, pre-washed and pre-chopped veggies, and so on.
This is all about learning from your past mistakes and taking steps to prevent it from happening again. As the saying goes, “The only real failure is if you fail to learn from it.”
Step 4: Find better ways to manage your emotions:
Emotional eating is simply an emotion management strategy.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, it’s quite normal. For many, it’s not a big problem because it’s just one of the ways that they manage emotions, or it does not happen frequently enough to cause a problem. However, it becomes more of a problem when it’s one of the only (or the only) way that you manage your emotions.
If hunger isn’t the problem, then food isn’t the solution.
Apart from actually taking steps to address the source of your emotional problems, work on identifying one or two alternative strategies to deal with the emotions that you are trying to manage. Keep in mind that consistently implementing one or two alternatives and slowly building your way up to more is usually more effective and more sustainable than trying to do AAAAAALL the healthy stuff all at once.
Some ideas include:
- Play a game or do something fun.
- Spend time connecting with loved ones or like-minded people.
- Do some retail therapy.
- Play a music instrument.
- Create or build something.
- Go for a walk.
- Take a hot shower or bath.
- Get a massage.
- Read a book or write in a journal.
Apart from specific strategies, some more general strategies that help include:
- Improve your nutrition.
- Get more (or better) sleep.
- Exercise regularly.
- Do more proactive stress management techniques to avoid getting too stressed out in the first place.
- Work on managing your time better.
- Learn to say no to things you don’t want to and don’t need to do.
- Be OK with being a bit selfish. If you are someone who is always taking care of others, remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup.
Step 5: Learn to tolerate discomfort:
In our Sleekgeek Healthy Habit Coaching Program, we call this the Discomfort Deal.
“When you feel the urge to eat emotionally, just take five minutes and sit with that urge. Set a timer if you like. During this time, simply notice what you are thinking or feeling, whatever comes up. And notice that you feel uncomfortable, but it’s okay. After those five minutes, you can make any choice that feels right.“
This is a form of delayed gratification, which is the ability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward and wait for a later reward.
A growing body of literature is showing that the ability to delay gratification is linked to a bunch of other positive outcomes, including academic success, physical health, psychological health, and social competence.
Practicing the 5-minute Discomfort Deal is an easy way to practice delayed gratification, helping you become better and better at it. It may simply start as delaying your emotional eating for 5 minutes, but over time it might become delaying it for 30 minutes, then 2 hours, then more than a day… Eventually, you get to a point where you may well have forgotten about what you were feeling emotional about or what you were craving until you no longer desire that food.
- Identify why you eat. Use a food journal and the HALT acronym.
- Identify what foods tend to be your downfall. Use the “Clean House Policy” to shape your environment and keep them at bay.
- Identify your triggers. Feelings, emotions, environments, people, times of day, etc. Learn from your past.
- Find better ways to manage your emotions. Try one or two specific strategies at a time.
- Learn to tolerate discomfort. Make a Discomfort Deal with yourself to delay gratification for 5 minutes.
Until then, here is a cool little chart that I want to leave with to help you identify the difference between Emotional Hunger and Physical Hunger.