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How To Break Free Of Emotional Eating

Updated: Jun 4

If you’re struggling to manage your weight and eat healthier, one thing that might get in the way is emotional eating.

When I was in my 20s, I did a lot of emotional eating. Pretty soon, I found myself overweight and unhealthy. I was prediabetic and had high cholesterol – yes, in my 20s! My health was an absolute mess.

Fortunately, I’ve discovered that there are ways to overcome emotional eating. Even if this is a very strong pattern for you, it’s possible to shift things and create a healthier relationship to food.

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is eating for any reason other than hunger. 

Rather than eating because your body needs calories and nutrients, you’re eating in order to manage your emotions. This is sometimes referred to as “stress eating,” but stress isn’t the only possible trigger. People may use emotional eating to manage a variety of different emotions, including:

  • Sadness

  • Anxiety

  • Grief

  • Anger

  • Boredom

  • Fatigue

Almost everyone engages in emotional eating from time to time. If it only happens occasionally, then it’s really not a big deal. However, for some people, emotional eating becomes a habit. When this happens, it can have a huge impact on your health.

The first step to overcoming emotional eating

Many people have been struggling with emotional eating for years. It might seem like there’s no way out of the cycle. But it’s definitely possible to get control of emotional eating and to develop healthier habits and coping mechanisms.

The first step is to get a sense of what your emotional eating triggers are. Before you can get emotional eating under control, you first need to understand why it’s happening. As I mentioned earlier, there are lots of different feelings that may trigger emotional eating.

I’ve found that the best way to do this is to keep a food journal. Every time you eat anything (even just a small snack), write down what you ate, along with your level of hunger just before eating, and what you were thinking and feeling just before eating. You don’t have to do this forever – just commit to two weeks of food journal.

Remember that your goal during this first step is not to stop emotional eating. Instead, it’s to get insight into what’s happening. Don’t try to alter your food intake patterns at this point – just take note of them. Later, you’ll start trying to take control, but for now, you’re just trying to understand.

After two weeks, look over your food journal. Pay particular attention to the times when you ate even though you weren’t particularly hungry. What were you thinking and feeling during those times? 

This process should give you insight into what triggers emotional eating for you.

How to finally tame emotional eating

Now that you understand what’s triggering your emotional eating, it’s time to start getting control of the situation.

Chances are that you’ve tried to stop yourself from emotional eating before, but the urge has just been too strong. Overcoming emotional eating simply through willpower is extremely difficult to do. 

The truth is that your nervous system isn’t really set up for not doing something. This is why simply trying to stop any kind of an unhealthy habit almost never works. Instead, the best way to get rid of an unhealthy habit is to replace it with a healthier option. That way, instead of simply trying not to do something, you’ll be doing something different instead. This is something that your nervous system can do!

So in order to stop emotional eating, what you need to do is to develop healthy coping mechanisms. Whenever you’re feeling the strong emotions that you’ve been using food to cope with, you’ll use a new healthier coping mechanism instead. 

When you're feeling bored, instead of grabbing a snack, do something else your enjoy.

Here are a few things you can try:

  • Go for a walk

  • Call someone you enjoy talking to (a family member or friend)

  • Listen to your favorite song (bonus: dance to it!)

  • Watch a funny TV show or movie (but be careful with this one – if you get sucked into watching something suspenseful or violent, it could trigger anxiety, so stick to watching something lighthearted)

  • Take a bath (use candles and/or essential oils if you’d like!)

  • Meditate or do some breathing exercises

  • Use your creativity – make art, music, or crafts

  • Try a new hobby (to help relieve boredom)

Once you’ve determined what your emotional eating triggers are, then you can start to think about healthy ways you could deal with those particular emotions. If your trigger is stress, then taking a bath or going for a walk might be ideal. If your trigger is boredom, then a new hobby might work well for you. If your trigger is sadness or loneliness, then calling a friend or watching a funny show could be a great idea.

Of course, the ideas on this list aren’t the only possibilities. You may be able to come up with many more healthy ways to manage your emotions. Take some time to think about what activities bring you joy, help you calm down, or help you feel connected and safe. Once you have a list of possibilities, you can try different options until you find one that will work for you.

The next step is to be consistent. Each time you feel the emotion that used to trigger emotional eating, use your new coping mechanism instead. 

Many people find it helpful to insert a pause. When you find yourself reaching for any type of food, ask yourself, “Why am I choosing food right now?” Check in with your body to see whether you’re truly hungry, and notice what emotions and thoughts you’re having in that moment. The pause gives you a chance to check in with yourself.

If you’re hungry, you might notice signs like your stomach growling, feeling shaky or weak, low energy levels, or having trouble concentrating. If you notice signs like these, then your body probably actually needs food. Choose to eat something healthy – if you were reaching for junk food, try to replace it with a healthier option. 

If you’re eating for any reason other than hunger, then reach for your new coping mechanism instead of food. Having a plan ahead of time for which specific activity you’ll try is very helpful. If you take your pause, and you’re pretty sure that you’re not physically hungry based on how your body is feeling, then you already know what to do next.

At first, you’ll likely continue to have food cravings. You’ve probably been engaging in emotional eating for many years, and your nervous system has learned to associate food with comfort. It will take some time to unlearn this association, and to learn a new one instead. Remember that your nervous system is very flexible and is capable of learning new things. Over time, you’ll develop an equally strong association with your new coping mechanism, and you won’t be so tempted to reach for food anymore. Even though using your new habits instead of food may be hard at first, stick with it, and it will get easier over time.

Seeking support as you break free of emotional eating

The process of breaking free of emotional eating often isn’t easy, and you’ll probably have some ups and downs. Do your best to stay consistent, but be gentle with yourself too! 

It can be very helpful to have support as you go through this process. Our MGS Communities are beautiful places to connect with other like-minded women. You can get advice when you need it, and you’ll have a community to cheer you on as you make progress. I’m also available for coaching, and will be happy to share everything I’ve learned throughout my own journey and give you personalized advice to help you succeed. You can book a 30-minute appointment here. (We can accomplish a lot in just half an hour!)

Emotional eating can be a huge challenge, but it’s definitely possible to overcome it. I know how hard it is – I’ve done it! With the right mindset and support, you can choose healthier ways to deal with your emotions, and achieve better physical health at the same time.

Journal Prompts

As you may know, I find journaling to be an extremely effective tool for growth and transformation. Here are a few journal prompts that you can try. For each of these questions, simply write whatever comes to mind until you feel that you’ve thoroughly explored the topic. Keep in mind that this is for your eyes only. Try to be as honest with yourself as you can, even if it’s challenging – we can only transform once we deeply understand where we’re currently at.

  • Start by keeping a food journal for two weeks. Write down every single thing you eat, along with how hungry you were and what you were thinking and feeling before you ate.

  • Look over your food journal. What patterns do you see? Which emotions seem to trigger the desire for food?

  • Consider all of the ways that you find comfort – feelings like joy, relaxation, connection, and safety. Make a list of everything you can think of that brings you feelings like these. Don’t leave anything off – try to make the list as long as you possibly can.

  • Choose one item from your comfort list that you’ll try to use in place of emotional eating this week. Try to choose something that will help address the specific emotion that tends to trigger your emotional eating. Whenever you feel the desire to eat, insert a pause, and then do that action instead. (In future weeks, you can try different items, but just focus on one for this week.)

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