Eating disorders – such as binge eating, bulimia and anorexia – are serious illnesses that involve extreme emotions and behaviors surrounding food, exercise and body image. About 30 million Americans struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
Even if you don’t have a diagnosed eating disorder, you may use food in unhealthy ways. Many people turn to food to soothe negative emotions such as stress, anger, depression, loneliness, anxiety, boredom and guilt. Though food may make you feel better in the short run, the satisfaction is only temporary. In reality, food can’t take away your problems and turning to food for comfort may even spur more negative emotions.
7 Ways to Avoid Emotional Eating
Write it down.
Think about the last time you had a powerful urge to overeat. Write down what you were feeling. By seeing the emotion on paper, you establish an awareness of that emotion. The quicker you acknowledge the trigger, the more success you’ll have in changing your eating behavior.2
Over time, you may see patterns emerge that reveal certain triggers. For example, you may notice that cravings strike every afternoon at 3 pm, when you’re tired or stressed. To avoid this, take a walk during your afternoon break before the craving hits or be prepared with a healthy snack.3
Find comfort elsewhere.
Your patterns may show that you hit the cookie jar whenever you feel lonely or angry. Instead of a cookie, think about what else might soothe your soul. Take a walk, listen to music, call a friend, practice deep breathing or start a project you’ve been putting off.4
Eat balanced meals.
Try to eat well-rounded meals at regular times that include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, low-fat dairy, healthy fats and lean protein. When you fill up on the basics, you’re more likely to prevent low blood sugar which can spark an emotional eating episode.5
Choose healthy snacks.
Give yourself permission to eat between meals – just keep to healthy snacks. A rice cake with natural peanut butter, cottage cheese with nuts and fruit or an apple and a piece of string cheese are all good choices. Eating at regular intervals can ward off cravings. Limit sweets, though, as they can trigger an eating rolllercoaster ride.6
Get a good night’s sleep.
Studies have shown that less than 6 hours of sleep can lead to increased hunger and cravings for salty, high-carb and sugary foods. The sleep-deprived body also loses the ability to turn off appetite, which leads to consuming large quantities of food.7
Get in touch with your hunger.
Pay attention to physical hunger cues, such as a rumbling stomach. You want to eat when you are physically hungry, not emotionally hungry. This can help to stop the cycle.
Don’t beat yourself up if you give into emotional eating on occasion. This can set you up for more negative connections between emotions and food. If you are used to turning to food when times are tough, understand that changing old habits takes time and patience.
Remember, you don’t have to make these changes on your own. If you find difficulty in managing your diet, reach out to your primary physician for resources that can support you in making healthier choices.