5 Ways To Stop Using Food As An Emotional Salve

There is much truth to the concept of emotional eating. Your emotions often play a vital role in your ability to lose and maintain a healthy weight.

November 20, 2015
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Do your emotions have anything to do with your weight? Is emotional eating real? Do some people use food as an emotional salve?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

I’m no psychologist, but I don’t have to be one to know for a fact there is much truth to the concept of emotional eating. Your emotions often play a vital role in your ability to lose and maintain a healthy weight.

Many of the decisions you make on a daily basis are driven by emotion, not just the food choices you make, but also how you react to various situations.

Research supports the fact that many overweight people have emotional issues that greatly affect their food choices. Jennifer C. Collins, MA, MS, and Jon E. Bentz, PhD, writing for the Journal of Lancaster General Hospital, stated:

Food is often used as a coping mechanism by those with weight problems, particularly when they are sad, anxious, stressed, lonely, and frustrated. In many obese individuals there appears to be a perpetual cycle of mood disturbance, overeating, and weight gain.

Using food as an emotional salve often begins in childhood. As I was growing up, I began the cycle of emotional eating without even being aware of it. When life felt busy or stressful, I walked down to the neighborhood convenience store and picked up a stash of chocolate and potato chips to eat later. Those early patterns set the stage for further dependency on food to soothe emotions.

It should not surprise you that emotions affect food choices. Food has played more than a nutritional role in the world for centuries. Births, deaths, milestones, and holidays are all marked with food. People worldwide use food as the centerpiece in many celebrations. Because food is used for more than just nutrition, it stands to reason that food elicits an emotional response in many people. I know it does for me.

It is the rare person who struggles with weight and has no emotional attachments to food.

Some common emotions that may cause you to turn to food are:

  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Happiness
  • Joy
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Boredom

That’s some list isn’t it? Some good, some bad, and some not so attractive.

All emotions are valid and important. How you handle your tendency to eat due to emotions will make the difference between success and failure when it comes to weight loss. Compulsive overeating due to emotions is extremely common and difficult to control.

However, it is possible to control your emotional response to food. It just takes practice, dedication, and accountability.

Here are five steps to take to quit using food as an emotional salve.

1. Acknowledge Food Fixes Nothing

It is tempting to reach for a Twinkie or dish out some ice cream when you are feeling emotional. However, the truth is that eating foods that are not part of your nutritional plan does nothing to fix the emotion. Instead, you likely feel guilty after blowing your diet.

2. Determine What Emotions You Are Trying to Quash

Look at the list above and see if you identify with any of the common emotions that drive overeating. Write down what emotional triggers you have as a way to recognize the emotions that you are trying to quash with food.

3. Pinpoint Behaviors

Emotional eating is often associated with certain behaviors. For me, when I had a stressful phone call or conversation, I would find myself drifting into the kitchen to find something to eat. Think about the last time you over ate. What were you doing? Where were you? What was going on in your life?

4. Seek Out an Accountability Partner

Ditching emotional eating is tough to do alone. I had my husband help me by holding me accountable for whether I finished off the leftover birthday cake or went through the fast food drive-thru. Find someone who is nonjudgmental and trustworthy.

5. Deal With Emotions Without Food

When you feel emotional, train yourself to wait about 15 minutes before eating a food that isn’t on your plan. Set a timer if you need to. Walk away your emotions, get busy with a project, or lift weights as a way to let the initial rush of emotions pass without overeating.

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