Ashley Palmer is a Registered Nurse and holds a Masters degree in Human nutrition. She is the owner and founder of Youtrition®, a diet free, guilt free approach to lasting weight loss. Find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
5 Steps to Stop Emotional Eating
by Ashley Palmer
Emotional eating can be frustrating if you are trying to improve your health. Even if you’ve worked hard to make good habit changes, emotional eating can cause you to reach for a carton of ice cream after a bad day and undo the progress you’ve made.
Emotional eating is one form of non-hunger eating, meaning it is triggered by something other than physiological hunger. For some people, emotional eating is a rare occurrence, only happening when a loved one falls ill or an incredibly stressful life event happens, while others may have developed a habit of daily emotional eating.
The danger in this is obvious on the surface: if we eat when our body has no true need for calories, it stores those extra calories (mostly in the form of body fat) for later use. But there can be danger beyond this: using food to calm emotions can become an unhealthy coping mechanism when underlying issues desperately need addressing.
Prior to receiving my Master’s degree in Nutrition and opening my own nutrition counseling practice, I worked as a Trauma Nurse in a large regional hospital. It was then that I learned, first hand, just how damaging emotional eating could be.
Although I was actively seeking positive change in my life and attempting to lose weight, I found that the stressful days at work made it all but impossible to stay away from large quantities of comfort food. Despite my desire to use food to make me feel better, it actually made me feel worse––uncomfortable, lethargic, sick, and guilty.
Over time I learned some incredibly useful strategies to help me overcome these tendencies. Years later, as a nutrition counselor, I continue to use many of these strategies successfully with my clients.
I’ve found that while each person finds one or two of these strategies to be the most beneficial, they still get the greatest benefit from using and implementing them in the order provided. So here they are, my top five tips for combatting emotional eating:
1. Recognize the trigger
While hunger tends to come on gradually, cravings related to emotional eating are more likely to be abrupt and resulting from situations or circumstances that we are faced with.
Just got off of a stressful phone call with a family member? Just had a big project fall through at work? Just walked in the door to fighting kids at the end of an exhausting day?
You are more likely to be triggered to eat emotionally in these situations. Just recognizing the trigger brings awareness to the situation and helps you to make a more rational choice.
2. Notice the physiological sensation
Take a couple of deep breaths, pause, and listen to your body. What do you notice? Do you notice hunger, or the absence of hunger? Is your heart racing? Breathing faster than normal? Is your body tense? Are you feeling jittery, agitated? Your physical sensations can be a telling sign for whether or not you are being triggered to eat emotionally, or if your body is experiencing true hunger.
3. Find a healthy (non-food) alternative
Once you have determined that the desire to eat is emotionally based and not a physical need, the next step is to find a healthier alternative behavior to diffuse the emotion you are feeling. Take a bath, go for a walk, read a good book, call a friend.
If you tend to eat emotionally more often than not, it may be useful to keep a list of alternatives on your refrigerator or cupboard. Promise yourself that when you are tempted to eat emotionally, you will try one of the items on the list first. With time, you will discover which of these activities provides the most emotional support and relief that you are in search of.
4. Address the real concern
After you have had some time to relax, de-stress, and defuse the strong emotion and desire to eat, take a new look at the actual problem with fresh eyes. Make a plan for how to address the real underlying need. Is there a conversation that needs to happen? Is there a pattern in your life that can be addressed to provide a more permanent relief from the emotion?
5. Continue on your journey
One thing that we often forget as we each travel on our individual health journey is that we are, in fact, human. And as such, we are going to make mistakes. The secret to long-term success is to keep going.
This is what I call the “pothole principle” in my work with clients. When driving, we are occasionally going to be blindsided by potholes. While hitting that bump can be uncomfortable and a little jarring, we continue driving, and eventually make it to our destination. The next time we travel that road, we are more likely to remember that it was there and stay clear of it.
If we spend too much time thinking about the pothole, pull off to the side of the road because we hit the pothole, or try to fix the pothole, we’re never going to get to our intended destination. Just keep going.
Emotional eating is not a life sentence. Just like any other nutritional or health behavior, it can be changed with time. By being aware of when you are actually eating emotionally, choosing other actions instead, and continuing despite setbacks, you are developing new skills and setting yourself up for long-term success.
With time, the pull will be less and less, and the actions that will lead you to better health will become more and more automatic.
What are some of your emotional eating triggers?