5 Steps to Stop Emotional Eating

by | Dec 3, 2013

Photo by RenaudPhoto

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 FacebookTwitter 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?

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18 Responses to “5 Steps to Stop Emotional Eating”

  1. Dee says:

    To feel good… Somehow- anyhow

    • Ashley says:

      Hi Dee,

      Anxiety is a very common trigger for emotional eating, and most people don’t even recognize it. By seeing it for what it is, you are way ahead of the curve on that. I’m excited to hear how these steps work for you.

  2. Joe Garma says:

    Hey, good to see that Darya’s mixing it up a bit here at Summer Tomato w/ this guest post by Ashley Palmer.

    I think you’re spot on w/ your advice, Ashley.

    It’s important to identify the triggers in life — those that trigger both the desired and unwanted behaviors. In fact, seeking triggering factors (people, places, times, events, things)to help embed behaviors is a useful thing to do.

    (Check out”How to Make Tiny Habits Big” http://bit.ly/HQzzYE)

    In my view, the next most important in your list is the selection of the substitute for whatever bad habit you’re seeking to drop.

    That substitute needs to be selected and available prior to getting the itch to do the unwanted thing. So, if the objective is to not eat cake before bedtime, make sure that glass of warm almond milk sprinkled with nutmeg is ready to go. 😉

    My 2 cents.


    • Ashley says:

      Thanks Joe! Good to be here 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts, I completely agree that recognizing triggers and swapping them out for an alternative are important… and warm almond milk with nutmeg sounds heavenly.

  3. Galina L. says:

    I just want to tell what I think – that from my experience following a LC diet almost eliminates emotional eating problem. I don’t think everybody should follow a such diet, but if compulsive eating is the real problem, it could be given a try. LC is a great help for preventing migraines in my case, but there are other benefits, as i discovered.I used to be prone to a grazing and to being too hungry compare to other people.
    I eat two times a day, very stable blood sugar leads to very stable mood and energy levels, I am never too hungry. If something really tips me from balance, I could have a cup of coffee with a heavy cream and a sugar substitute.

  4. Chelsea N says:

    I was literally just talking about my stress eating habit yesterday, and here is your post making it’s way into my life. How perfect!

    I’m a graphic designer, and I’ve known for awhile that I tend to stress eat when I’m working on a big project, or trying to work my way through a creative block. It makes sense to substitute a new habit, but when that stress hunger hits, I’m at my desk working with a tight deadline, and I can’t justify a walk or a break to read a book. It’s almost become part of my process, snacking over the course of the project. Any ideas on a small replacement habit that I could do along with my work?

    • Ashley says:

      Hi Chelsea,

      Good work noticing your triggers. One thing that works well for many of my clients is taking 3 deep breaths — it gives you time to pause and recognize your body sensations. Also, in my experience, some situations aren’t conducive to, or don’t require a replacement habit, just recognition “this is not hunger this is stress” and that can be enough to help you continue your work without reaching for treats. With time and recognition, the urges get less powerful. If you find yourself still struggling, maybe a quick walk could help you clear your head and work more efficiently? Let me know how it goes.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Thanks for the reply Ashley, and definitely keep us posted Chelsea. I’m curious too.

  5. Alexandra says:

    I think my trigger is boredom.
    However when I get anxiety, I cannot eat at all. I get anxiety a lot sometimes and I can go for 2 days without eating. I do not know if this is messing up my metabolism. I have no clue what to do about this. If anyone has suggestions I would greatly appreciate them. I have always been like this.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help with anxiety. You learn breathing exercises and mindfulness to address the anxiety and disperse it. I get it too sometimes, and the breathing and mindfulness help tremendously.

  6. Jason says:

    Thanks for these simple tips, Ashley (and Darya). My biggest problem has been having the presence of mind to take a moment and think about things, like you’ve suggested. For me, when an emotional craving comes on fighting it is the only place my mind goes. Unfortunately, when I try to fight it, I usually lose.

    My latest blog post is along these lines. What I’m finding over the last few weeks is that I need to be intentional with my thoughts about food, even when I’m not feeling emotional cravings. I’ve been writing about what I eat as well as what I crave, why I think I’m craving it, what I was doing before the craving hit, as much info as I can get. I’m finding that the outlet of writing is good enough and I don’t cave to the temptation as much. I think acknowledging the cravings and dealing with them rationally through writing is extremely helpful to me.


  7. fanny says:

    I’ve been doing this a lot lately. I thought I had it under control. I know I’m feeling stressed and whatnot, but it’s more than that. I also put on a few kilos and I feel horrible about it. This feeling horrible about it leads to looking for comfort, and then I feel worse, rinse and repeat. I know the trigger, I recognize I’m not hungry, I even breathe, it’s not like I grab the first thing I find. I even go out of my way to satisfy my craving. I found myself unable to stop it for the past 4-5 months. *sigh*

  8. Carolyn says:

    This stress eating has been a problem for years. I do well with regular meals but if we get together with friends playing cards, wow! Munchies are set out, does not matter what, my hand to the dish then to the mouth until the dish is empty. My problem is anxiety, of course. Solution is easy, just push the dish away. Yeah, sure. I will pull it back within minutes. I had talked to one friend about not having snacks, and we did not a couple times but it started up again because someone else missed them. Sigh!

  9. wendyx says:

    Im bored eat put on weight get depressed eat more

  10. AlliK says:

    My trigger is stress & the afternoon slump combined.

    I deal with stress at work pretty well throughout the morning. Eat lunch. (Almost always brought from home.) And then 3pm hits. I’m tired, and the stress gets over whelming. Then I want sugar.

    When I was doing my MA and writing my thesis I got the same thing. I successfully combated the sugar craving by making a cup of tea. Still something I was consuming, but it gave me the comfort and the pick me up I wanted, without the sugar bomb of binge eating a bag of cookies.

    Now I work in an office with no kettle, but easily accessible junk food. I need a new replacement habit.

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