Perhaps you had a bad day at work. Or a fight with your spouse. Maybe you can’t quite put your finger on what’s making you feel so lonely, upset, or just plain sad.
To help cope with the feelings, you make a big batch of creamy macaroni and cheese, the ultimate comfort food.
You’re hungry, so you have a bowl for dinner. Then another.
Before you know it, the entire batch of macaroni and cheese is almost gone. But instead of feeling satisfied, you feel stuffed and mad at yourself for overindulging—and you’re still upset about what was previously bothering you.
This cycle is called emotional eating, says Kimberly Hershenson, New York City–based clinical therapist specializing in eating disorders. “Emotional eating is when a person turns to food to make them feel better during periods of anxiety, stress, or depression.”
While emotional eating isn’t a healthy habit, it may not be considered an eating disorder.
“Emotional eating does not necessarily mean you consume large quantities of food. You may just use food as an attempt to control and cope with feelings,” Hershenson explains. “If your emotional eating tends to be consuming large quantities of food … in a short period of time at least once a week for three months, it may be binge eating disorder, which is an eating disorder.”
- Recognize unhealthy eating habits
The first step toward a healthier relationship with food is understanding why emotional eating occurs in the first place.
But how do you know if you’re an emotional eater?
“Hunger is usually a physical feeling felt in the stomach, chest, and even throat,” says Molly Cutler, a registered dietitian and nutritionist based in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles. “With true hunger, you may find your stomach growling low and slow.”
On the other hand, says Hershenson, “some signs a client is an emotional eater include feeling hunger intensely and all of a sudden or frequently craving comfort foods rather than seeking to eat balanced meals.”
If you notice that you’re turning to junk food or sugary snacks for comfort every time you experience a setback, you may be an emotional eater.
Recognizing true hunger pangs can be difficult. Sticking to a regular eating schedule of small, healthy meals every two to three hours can help keep hunger pangs and cravings at bay. When you do feel hungry, try to rate your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10. If you keep your hunger to a 1 or 2, you’ll be less likely to use food as a comfort tool. If you’re still experiencing hunger pangs or intense cravings after eating a meal, an underlying issue such as low blood sugar may be the culprit that’s leading to emotional eating.
“Most people at one point or another have used emotional eating in some form to cope or provide comfort,” explains Cutler. “But emotional eating is usually a symptom of someone who is struggling to process their emotional reactions to their inner and outer world. …Emotional eating is using food to comfort oneself in order to fill a lack or void of some kind elsewhere in the person’s life. The problem with using food to soothe when hunger isn’t the root issue is it often leads to a cycle of obsessing, overeating, and having feelings of guilt and shame.”
If you’ve occasionally binged on ice cream after a bad breakup but otherwise eat a regular, healthy diet, you’re probably in the clear. But if you notice that you’re turning to junk food or sugary snacks for comfort every time you experience negative emotions, you may be an emotional eater.
- Take mindful action to stop emotional eating
If you struggle with emotional eating, Cutler says the first step toward a healthier lifestyle is to identify the underlying feelings you have the next time you get the urge to eat mindlessly.
Do you feel bored? Sad? Tired? Hungry? Overstimulated?
“Once you identify the feeling, you can find tailored ways to provide comfort that do not involve food,” says Cutler. “The most important message I try to get across to clients is that when and if there are slip-ups, it is important to view these not as failures but as a natural part of the healing a process.”
One way to help realize eating patterns is to keep a journal. Jot down not just the foods you eat each day, but also make notes about your moods and emotions each day. When you can look back over several days or weeks in a food journal, emotional eating patterns may be easier to recognize.
“Overcoming emotional eating involves teaching the individual healthier ways to have a relationship with food and develop better eating habits such as mindful eating, recognizing their triggers for engaging in emotional eating, and developing healthy coping skills,” says Hershenson.
Mindful eating is exactly what it sounds like: being aware of how your body feels when it is hungry and paying attention to your thoughts and emotions as you eat, as well as the foods that fuel your body.
- Eat slowly and intentionally
No, this doesn’t mean intentionally eating the whole box of cookies when you’re feeling sad.
Instead, says Cutler, “Tak[ing] time to pause, look at your food, smell it, really taste it, chew it, and savor each bite is very different than eating without thinking and focusing on the action of eating.”
One way to practice intentional eating is to think of each meal as an experience. Set the table with your favorite dinnerware, light a candle, and make your dining space an inviting place.
Another way to eat with intentionality is to plan your meals each day. When you have a meal plan, you’ll be more likely to reach for the healthy meals you’ve already prepped, even when you’re feeling stressed or sad.
- Chew to completion
Chewing each bite completely before swallowing also means it takes longer to finish a meal. This way, your stomach has time to catch up to your brain and signal that you’re really full. When you scarf down a meal, you’re brain doesn’t get the signal that you’re full until you’ve eaten too much.
“Chewing your food thoroughly until it is liquid also helps prevent bloating, gas, and indigestion,” says Hershenson. “When food breaks down due to saliva stimulation, it moves through your intestines easier, allowing for better absorption of vitamins and nutrients.”
In addition, Cutler says you can eat more slowly by simply putting your utensil down after each bite. “Putting your fork down in between bites is a brilliant way to build up mindfulness around eating, as you simply can’t inhale your food this way.”
- Unplug from technology
“Staring mindlessly at the TV or your phone often leads to us not paying attention to what we eat or how much we eat,” says Hershenson. “We may eat too quickly without even tasting our food. Shutting off allows us to focus on our food while giving your mind a break from technological stimulation.”
Sometimes you can’t control your interaction with technology during a mealtime. For example, if you’re like 62 percent of Americans, you probably take a working lunch, eating at your desk every day.
When it is within your power, step away from technology during meals. Put your phone on its charger, shut down your laptop, and turn off the television. You’ll find that you’re more mindful about what you’re eating when distractions are kept to a minimum.
- Use your senses
“I find the best ways to incorporate mindful eating is to look at your food before you eat it, noticing the different colors and textures,” says Cutler.
One of the best ways to do this is to create a rainbow on your plate. This means choosing colorful veggies, like green beans, squash, and tomatoes, along with nutritious whole grains and healthy fats, like nut butters.
Noticing food’s color and texture “allows you to fully embrace eating with all of your senses, leading to slower eating, easier digestion, and attention to fullness,” Hershenson explains.
How does each bite taste and feel as you eat? You may realize things about your meal that you never noticed before, like the satisfying crunch of a sugar snap pea or the way a perfectly ripe avocado melts in your mouth.
- Eat with gratitude
You’re probably very grateful to have plenty of food available any time you want it. But mindfully practicing gratitude goes a little deeper.
“Acknowledge all that was involved in getting the meal to you from the farmers that may have planted the seeds for your vegetables to the animals that produced your milk.”
“Give yourself credit for the time and effort it took [to] creat[e] the meal in front of you,” says Hershenson. “Acknowledge all that was involved in getting the meal to you from the farmers that may have planted the seeds for your vegetables to the animals that produced your milk.”
When you take time to fully appreciate all that was involved to get a meal on your plate, you’ll be more likely to savor the food and eat more slowly instead of overeating.
What’s more, practicing gratitude daily has been linked to other health benefits, like reduced stress and an overall improved sense of well-being.
- Practice self-care
“Self-care is crucial,” says Hershenson. “When uncomfortable feelings come up, it’s important to recognize them and take steps to take care of yourself in a healthy way.”
When you recognize a feeling that causes emotional eating, put your self-care plan into action. If stress triggers emotional eating, schedule something relaxing, like a massage. Or simply run a hot bath and take a 15-minute soak.
If loneliness triggers your emotional eating, try to meet up with a buddy who understands what you’re going through. If you’re new in town, try these tips to meet new friends.
- Stop negative self-talk
Negative self-talk may be one reason you turn to food for emotional comfort, and it can turn into a negative cycle when you then beat yourself up for overeating, renewing those feelings that made you turn to food in the first place. “Don’t berate and punish yourself when you emotionally eat,” says Cutler.
Easier said than done, right?
Instead, Cutler says if you start to use food for comfort, stop and try to find out what your body really needs. Often our moods and subsequent emotional eating can be solved when we get the key nutrients our bodies needs.
If you notice that your cravings are repetitive, maybe you are lacking specific foods in your day. For example, if you eat nonfat dairy only and then find yourself consistently craving and piling in a pint of ice cream, it may be your body telling you full fat dairy is what you really need. Or if you notice you crave fried foods, it may be a sign you aren’t getting enough healthy fats in your diet, so load up on avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, nut butters, and nuts and seeds to keep cravings at bay.
- Get help to stop emotional eating
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you find yourself emotionally eating.
Overeaters Anonymous is free and offers support meetings in every state. If going to meetings isn’t your thing, you can also take advantage of their virtual services, which include telephone and online meetings and email support groups.
While emotional eating isn’t always considered an eating disorder, Cutler says that the National Eating Disorders Association also has helpful resources for those who struggle with emotional eating. Call their helpline to speak with a professional, or use their private online screening tool to determine if you may need professional help.
“Healing doesn’t mean perfection, but a process. The more you realize this, the less you will punish yourself and your love for yourself will keep growing.”
Breaking the cycle of emotional eating is really hard, but you can do it, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up when you experience setbacks.
“Build compassion toward yourself,” Cutler encourages.
You don’t lack discipline and you are not shameful [when you experience a setback]. You are simply learning how to identify your body’s signal and you are progressing every day. There will be highs when you’re feeling awesome and fulfilled, and there will be lows where you turn to food as comfort. The key is to focus on healing. Healing doesn’t mean perfection, but a process. The more you realize this, the less you will punish yourself and your love for yourself will keep growing.