How to manage emotional eating

Medical Reviewer: Julia Axelbaum, RD
Published on: April 11, 2021
Updated on: March 14, 2024

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By Ohad Cohen

There are many reasons why we eat and oftentimes it is not our hunger driving us. Our emotions like boredom, stress, anger, happiness or disappointment can often increase our appetite, even when our bodies are not experiencing physical hunger.

And you’re not alone, we’ve all eaten out of boredom, stress, anger or disappointment. We turn to food as a quick fix so we don’t have to deal with these emotions and their root cause. This is known as emotional eating and it can unknowingly lead to extra calorie consumption throughout the day. Identifying the differences between emotional hunger cues and physical hunger cues in order to manage emotional eating is a tool you can use to help you reach your weight and health goals.

Triggers Identifying the emotions that drive you to food is the first step to managing emotional eating. What are you feeling that’s driving you to eat? This trigger can be something that just happened such as a bad day at work or a time of day that you regularly feel the need to snack, like late at night after you’ve put the kids to bed.

Oftentimes there are unrecognized patterns that drive emotional eating. For example, many people use food as a “reward” for a stressful day at work and turn to calorie laden snack foods. Others crave their favorite ice cream during their favorite weeknight TV show. These patterns and behaviors become so ingrained in our daily lives we don’t think about it, until we pause to take a moment and ask “am I hungry?” “or “am I seeking comfort?”

Food and Mood Journaling Food journaling is a tool you can use to help you identify exactly when and why you emotionally eat. Writing down what, when, and why you eat can help you notice patterns. A bad day may have led to late night snacking or a stressful deadline may have led to an unneeded snack. As you journal, you can identify the moments you turned to food, the event that took place and the emotions you were feeling that drove you to eat. This information allows you to pause and take note of such situations and be ready for them in the future.

P A U S E Take a moment before eating and ask, am I hungry? Why am I eating? It could very well be because it’s time for you to eat. But many times, just those few seconds allows you to think and you give yourself the opportunity to decide whether this snack is needed (physical hunger) or simply wanted (emotional hunger). A simple pause can help you identify triggers, patterns, and help you understand the difference between your emotional hunger cues or physical hunger cues.

Distraction As you begin to recognize your emotional hunger cues, it can be tempting to just grab a snack and relax, but instead, you can choose to do something else. Try an activity for 20 minutes, so if you’re stressed go for a walk, if you’re lonely call and catch up with a friend, do a house chore you may have been putting off , run an errand, or try a hobby like knitting that uses your hands—there are tons of things we can do. Taking the time to distract ourselves also gives time for the craving to pass, and before you know it, you just got yourself a moment of victory. We call this riding out the craving wave!

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Support This is dear to us, because we pride ourselves on always being there for our patients through every step of their weight loss journey. You don’t have to do it alone, we truly believe that having a support system is key in getting through the ups and downs. Friends and family are a great starting point, but there are also online and community support groups for people going through what you’re going through, and we know that support can help people immensely.

A bad day isn’t a sign of failure We’re all human. We have good and bad days. If you’re having a particularly bad day or negative emotion, be in the moment. Recognize what you’re feeling, why you’re feeling it, and what you can do to help yourself (it’s a great time for food journaling). Practice letting yourself experience difficult feelings without reaching for your typical comfort food. Take a minute to pause and think about how you might feel later. And remember, you’re human, it’s totally ok to have a bad day sometimes, we all do, but it’s important to acknowledge that each day is a fresh start.

Forgive Yourself, But Also Remember You had a cookie. It happens. The key is to enjoy the cookie guilt free, forgive yourself, and move on. While it’s important to pause and think about what triggered the eating, it’s important to enjoy the foods you eat. Learn from it. There’s a difference between enjoying a sweet treat because you want it, and enjoying it to quell an emotion or feel comfort. Acknowledge your drivers to eat, and where you can improve next time. Recognizing emotional eating can help you reduce unnecessary calories from your daily diet and help you reach your weight and health goals. Emotions are a part of human life, so it’s important to acknowledge how you’re feeling, even if it’s uncomfortable, Work on developing other coping strategies instead of food, and develop plans to distract yourself when you feel yourself reverting into old habits. Reach out to your support system and know you’ll be ok, just keep making progress and practice noticing your emotions.

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