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5 Essential Steps to Stop Emotional Eating

By Alexander Dummer. CC0 Creative Commons.

Stress eating, or emotional eating, is when you use food to satisfy emotional needs instead of just satisfying real, physical hunger. You may reach for that tub of ice cream when you’re feeling depressed, drown yourself in a large cream milkshake after a stressful day, or reach for a bag of chips when you’re bored, lonely, or stressed.

Food is naturally rewarding for all living beings, so it’s easy for us to depend on food to make us feel good. Because let’s face it, food is delicious, and it does make us feel good while we’re eating it. And enjoying food is perfectly healthy. But when your first instinct is to head to the kitchen or down to the store whenever you’re feeling stressed, bored, depressed, lonely, tired, or upset, you’ll never learn to deal with those emotions healthily.

Eating will only provide temporary satisfaction and can distract you from whatever you’re feeling at the moment, but when that’s over, your upsetting feelings are still there. In fact, you may even feel worse than before after eating all those unnecessary calories.

So we need to break this unhealthy cycle, learn to eat consciously, and finally start to get your weight under control as a result. Here’s how to get started.

Poll: Emotional Eating

Which of these indicators of emotional eating do you most identify with?

Emotional Hunger vs. Physical “Real” Hunger

By Rakicevic Nenad. CC0 Creative Commons.
By Rakicevic Nenad. CC0 Creative Commons. | Source
Emotional Hunger
Physical Hunger
Comes on suddenly.
Increases gradually.
Often leads to mindless eating.
Rarely leads to mindless eating.
Leads to specific food cravings.
Almost any food will do.
Is not felt in the stomach.
Is felt in your stomach.
Ends with feelings of regret, guilt, or shame.
Leads to comfortable satisfaction.

How to Stop Emotional Eating

By Adrianna Calvo. CC0 Creative Commons.
By Adrianna Calvo. CC0 Creative Commons. | Source

1. Analyze Your Hunger

Next time you feel the urge to head towards the pantry, take a moment to analyze what’s going on in your mind. Is it food you’re wanting? What emotions are you feeling right now? Are you feeling hunger pangs? When was the last time you had something to eat? Did your hunger come suddenly or has your stomach been feeling steadily more empty?

If you realize that it’s not physical hunger you’re feeling, really dig deep into what emotions you’re feeling and what happened that made you feel that way. Try to label your feelings to the best of your ability. Are you sad? Bored? Stressed? Happy? Relieved? Angry? That way, you can start to identify which emotions are your most likely triggers for emotional eating.

2. Deal With Your Feelings

When you’ve identified your emotional triggers for the urge to eat, you can start to deal with them. If you realize that feeling stressed is triggering your food cravings, you can try other methods to decompress. Do some yoga, take a walk outside, work out at the gym, etc. But if the emotional trigger is a little more complicated, you may need to create a more long-term plan. If you’re depressed or anxious, you may want to consult a professional to help you or reach out to your loved ones for support. If you’re stressed from too much pressure at work, you may want to have a meeting with your boss or human resources to see if there’s a practical solution or consider changing jobs.

The key here is to fix the root of the problem and not temporarily gloss over the symptoms by eating.

3. Tune In to Your Stomach

After eating, take a minute to tune into how you feel about it. Did eating make you feel satisfied and comfortable? Did it make you feel ashamed and guilty? Did you stuff yourself or did you stop when you’ve had enough? If you feel unhappy about how, what, or why you ate, don’t beat yourself up. Take this as an opportunity to come up with a plan for what you should do next time. Yes, this time was a mistake, but next time you can make better decisions. You will not stop emotional eating all at once and slipping up is normal. Stay positive and take it one step at a time.

4. Distract Yourself

A study found that video games can help to distract people from their cravings for food. Participants who played video games experienced a 24% decrease in food cravings than those who didn’t do anything visually distracting. But if gaming isn’t your thing, that’s fine. The point is to distract yourself from thoughts of food. So if stress is triggering your cravings, take a relaxing bath, do some yoga, listen to your favorite playlist. Bored? Get out for a run, go to the gym, read an engaging novel. Stressed? Work it out at the gym, write down your feelings in a journal, dance vigorously to upbeat music.

Poll: Emotional Eating Guilt

How often do you feel guilty after eating?

5. Write It Down

To further help you get a better handle on your food habits and emotional triggers, keep a food log. Note down when you ate, what you ate, and what you were feeling and thinking about when you ate the food. If the thought of carrying around a notebook sounds like a hassle, you can keep the log on your smartphone or any other digital device capable of note-taking that you keep around you all the time.

You can also keep a separate journal for writing down all your cravings. Write down what you’re craving, why you’re feeling this craving, and consider how you can satisfy this craving in a healthier way.

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