Dealing with Emotional Eating Issues

Post written by Leo Babauta.

I’d venture to say that most of our bad eating habits revolve around emotional issues — sometimes small things like stress or comfort eating, sometimes deeper (but very common) issues like equating food with love, or using food to deal with depression.

To be completely honest, I had many of these issues when I started learning mindful eating six years ago or so, and am still sorting through a few of the more stubborn issues even today.

I used to eat for many emotional reasons: stress, to reward myself for hard work, to compensate for a bad day, comfort when I was feeling sad or lonely, to avoid problems, because others were doing it so it was OK, and more.

The result was that I ballooned to an unhealthy weight over 230 lbs., and had the hardest time changing my eating habits. I went on several diets (Atkins, Flat Belly Diet, South Beach) and none of them stuck, because I couldn’t figure out why I would keep eating things I knew were unhealthy for me. My eating was out of control.

It wasn’t until I began to eat mindfully that I realized why I was eating so much, and why it was so hard to change. I started to realize how much of a crutch food was for me, and how I used it to deal with so many emotions.

Awareness was the start. Once I became aware of what was going on, the next challenge was changing. That’s not always easy, because these are habits that have built up over the years and they are habits we use to deal with very real needs. Stress is real — how will you cope with stress besides eating? So is anger, sadness, the need for comfort, the need for friendship. How will you deal with those needs?

This is how you beat emotional eating — you learn to deal with the emotions in healthier ways.

I’ll give you a process that can be used for any emotional eating, and then some examples.

How to Deal with Emotional Eating

This is a process I recommend for everyone — even if you think you don’t have emotional eating issues, it’s worth considering, because you might not be aware of some of the issues that are undercutting your attempts at eating healthy.

1. Learn to eat mindfully for a month. Pay attention to your emotions as you start to think about eating (you might feel hungry, or have a craving to eat something). Notice your emotions as you eat, and after as well. Keep a few notes — what emotions do you feel, when, and why. What do you feel like eating? You don’t need copious notes, but you should start a list of the emotions (stress, anger, sadness, joy).

2. Pick one emotion to start with. You might think you can handle more than one. Most people can’t, and so I recommend starting with just one for now. You’ll get to the others soon. I’d recommend you start with the emotional trigger that occurs most frequently. So if you only have social eating triggers once or twice a week, but you have stress or comfort triggers multiple times a day, choose the latter.

3. Find a healthy way of coping with the need. If the need is a way to cope with stress, you need to find some healthy way of doing that other than eating. If you don’t, then the need will become so strong that you’ll cave and eat. Some examples of ways to cope with the need are in the next section.

4. Pay close attention to your trigger. If you’re focusing on stress, pay close attention to it. Try to notice every time it comes up. You might want some kind of visual reminder placed somewhere you’ll see it when you get stressed (at your desk or in the car, for example, if those are places you commonly get stressed).

5. When the trigger happens, use your new healthy coping technique. If the technique is going for a walk when you get stressed, then every time you notice the trigger, go for a walk, even if it’s just for 1-2 minutes. If you strongly want to eat, do the new coping technique instead. Breathe. You’ll get through the eating urge.

6. Call upon social support. Ask friends and people online to support your new change. Report to them daily and ask them to hold you accountable.

7. Repeat. Do this technique for one emotional trigger for at least a couple weeks, if not a month. When you feel you have a handle on it, repeat the technique for another emotional trigger on your list.

Specific Emotions

So here are some examples of healthier ways to cope with emotional triggers:

  1. Stress. Instead of eating, try some kind of exercise, such as pushups, walking, jogging, weights, or yoga. Try deep breathing or meditating for 2 minutes. Try massaging your shoulders. Drink water.
  2. Boredom. Many people eat when they’re bored. What are some healthy ways to deal with boredom instead? Go for a walk. Find a comfy spot and read a novel. Find friends to play sports with or go for a hike with. Learn to garden or sew. Make tea. Write. Journal. Do yoga. Listen to music.
  3. Reward. Did you put in a hard day’s work? Did you accomplish something great? Did you finish that report or paper or chapter or project? Did you make a big sale? Time to reward yourself with food! Woohoo! Except that there are other ways to reward yourself: Take a nap. Get a massage. Take a bath. Have sex. Have tea. Allow yourself some down time.
  4. Comfort – sadness, depression, loneliness. We often use food as a way to comfort ourselves, often a habit stemming from childhood. What are other ways to comfort yourself? Find a friend or loved one to comfort you or give you a hug. Again, tea can be a good choice. Snuggle with a pet. Do yoga or meditate. Call someone. Take a walk in nature. Watch a sunset. Light scented candles and take a bath.
  5. Social. Often we eat as a way to socialize, or because other people we’re socializing are eating. Learn other ways to socialize instead: go for a hike, play sports, make healthy food with friends, play music or make art together, or have fruit instead of unhealthy foods. Learn to socialize with others who are eating, without eating yourself. Have a glass of water and focus on conversation rather than eating.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but some examples of ways you can cope with your needs without food. As you experiment, you might find other ways that work better for you. The key is to start!