How To Curb Emotional Eating

3 min
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Have you ever found yourself mindlessly munching on a bag of crisps while watching TV, or making a beeline for the fridge after an argument with a friend or a tough day in the office? Emotional eating is nothing new. In fact, it is quite common and normal. It occurs when we use food to regulate strong emotions like anger, stress, and sadness. And while it’s acceptable to indulge occasionally – after all, food is also a way for humans to connect, and the sharing of meals has long been a part of our history as a means of celebration, courtship, and more – emotional eating becomes a problem when it is the only or first coping mechanism we resort to in order to deal with our feelings. 

Emotional eating typically manifests itself with sudden and urgent cravings for certain types of foods that are calorie-dense and poor in nutritional value. The issue lies in that this kind of eating is tied to an emotional rather than physical sensation of hunger. In this scenario, food is a short-term solution to dampen overwhelming feelings, or to fill an emotional gap. This is often accompanied by over-eating, which neither leads to true satiety or satisfaction no matter how much food is consumed. While there may be a sense of relief or even release during that very moment of letting go, that sensation is quickly replaced and overshadowed by guilt – and quite often, shame too – over the lack of self-control. We are then left feeling powerless over our emotions, stuck in a vicious circle of eating to soothe or quench feelings that can resurface not long after we take that last bite. 

It is never easy to break away from an unhealthy lifestyle pattern, but with a few strategies in place, it is possible to successfully tackle emotional eating for a happier, healthier you.

Get To The Bottom Of What’s Eating You

As with many challenges that are tied to our emotions, it’s important to first establish the cause before treating the effect. It could be something physical, physiological, or psychological, from an imbalance of hormones and interoceptive factors to depression and anxiety. Becoming aware of the issue, then identifying our triggers is a good place to start. Tackling issues of disordered eating habits requires building a better relationship with food, particularly when striving for positive change with long-term success. 

When we are stressed out and in “fight or flight” mode, the brain responds by releasing more of the hormone cortisol, which helps us manage short bursts of stress. More cortisol coursing through the body makes us hunger for foods high in fat, salt, and sugar, to quickly store more energy in order to manage or respond to a stressful situation.

If you find that you respond to emotional overload by reaching for a box of biscuits or a tub of ice cream, consider pausing for a moment before taking that first bite, to ask yourself exactly what it is that you are feeling. You may find that by slowing down and being more mindful you are able to make the distinction between physical and emotional hunger. With practice you will learn to recognise when you aren't actually physically hungry, but rather, you are feeling stressed, anxious, or bored, for example. 

If your battle with emotional eating is linked to anxiety or depression, you may benefit from the support of a healthcare professional who will be able to assess and assist you in addressing your emotional needs, taking a deeper look at your emotional triggers, and guiding you in re-establishing a healthier rapport with food.

Find New Coping Mechanisms to Manage your Emotions

Instead of turning to food, consider trying activities that promote nervous system downregulation, otherwise known as a state of “rest and digest”. Giving yourself an opportunity to relax and chill out in this way will allow you to keep stress at bay, giving your mind and body a respite from the external stressors that trigger emotional eating, and helping you learn to approach your eating habits more mindfully. Meditation, mindful breathing, and yoga are all known for promoting relaxation and allowing you to take a load off from the day. The right yoga classes will also teach you to deal with your emotions and your thoughts more effectively. 

You can also equip yourself with some alternative strategies. If a hunger pang is about to strike, maybe grab a piece of gum to simulate eating to cope with that oral fixation, go for a walk, or call a friend to clear your head. You could also start prepping some food, but make sure it takes you at least 15 minutes to cook, to give yourself a chance to reset your intentions, become absorbed in the process as you focus on creating something nutritious to nourish yourself, and get back on track.

Shift Your Relationship With Food

There are some more practical actions you can put in place to address emotional eating. These include not waiting too long between meals, choosing ingredients that you know will help you feel fuller for longer, keeping a food diary so you can hold yourself accountable, avoiding unhealthy choices at the supermarket by shopping when you aren’t hungry, and, prepping meals and healthy snacks ahead of a new week. In addition to more balanced food choices, make sure you also get plenty of sleep and exercise to encourage and help you to emotionally tackle whatever the day throws at you in a more positive and purposeful way.

If you're still struggling despite your best efforts to find the root cause of your emotional eating habits and finding ways to change them, it may also be wise to consider professional help. Trying to overcome disordered eating habits can be very challenging, and treatment can often incorporate a team approach with a combination of psychological, nutritional, educational, and behavioral methods with the help of a mental health counselor or therapist; a psychiatrist, psychologist, or psychotherapist; a nutritionist; and a medical physician. If you think you may need professional help with disordered eating habits, remember, there's nothing to feel ashamed about, and that reaching out could be the first step towards positive change.


All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Fight, Flight, – Or Grab A Bite! Trait Emotional And Restrained Eating Style Predicts Food Cue Responding Under Negative Emotions; Emotional Eating: Eating When Emotional Or Emotional About Eating?; Depression, Emotional Eating And Long-Term Weight Changes: A Population-Based Prospective Study; Stress And Eating Behavior: A Daily Diary Study In Youngsters; Emotional Eating In Healthy Individuals And Patients With An Eating Disorder: Evidence From Psychometric, Experimental And Naturalistic Studies; Emotional Eating Is Not What You Think It Is and Emotional Eating Scales Do Not Measure What You Think They Measure.

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