7 Ways to Stop Emotional Eating

stop emotional eating

Put down the ice cream carton! Here are 7 ways to stop emotional eating.After a stressful day at work, you unwind on the couch with mindless television and a bag of tortilla chips…and the next thing you know that bag is empty.

Or maybe your kid spent the entire day pushing your buttons, so as soon as he’s in bed you drown out your frustration with a carton of Mint Chocolate Chip.

Or maybe you swore off carbohydrates in the name of losing ten pounds, only to find yourself in a desperate showdown with a bowl of pasta.

We eat to stay alive, yes. But we also eat for countless reasons that have little to do with physical nourishment.

It’s the reason the phrase “comfort food” exists.

Indulging in a bit of chocolate after a bad day is generally no big deal. The problem is when we overdo it with the hopes of distracting ourselves from stress, loneliness, frustration, anxiety, shame, or whatever uncomfortable emotion we’re facing.

The problem is when we go so overboard that we’re plagued with guilt over what we ate.

I know because I have been there.

I have stared into the bottom of that ice cream carton and wondered where it all went. I have run away from bad situations by heading straight to the drive-through window. I have stood in front of the open fridge searching for something—anything—to take my mind off my troubles.

So I speak from personal experience when I say here are seven ways to stop emotional eating.

7 Ways to Stop Emotional Eating

1. Ditch dieting for good.

Diets are everywhere. You’ll find them in magazines, bookstores, and drugstores. You’ll see them on commercials and on blogs.

Author and speaker Geneen Roth has said that for every diet, there is an equal and opposite binge. What she means is that whenever you restrict your eating to drop a few pounds, you inevitably go crazy from the deprivation, down a couple of candy bars when no one is looking, and subsequently gain back more weight than you started with.

In other words, diets don’t work.

If you want to stop overeating, you also have to stop undereating.

2. Honor your hunger and fullness.

Have you ever felt hungry for lunch at 11am, but held off because it just felt “too early”? Have you ever eaten six bites past feeling full for the sole purpose of cleaning your plate? I’m guessing most of us have.

The problem with eating by these kinds of external cues—the clock, the amount of food on our plates, dieting plans, etc.—is that it goes against our bodies’ natural instincts.

We’ve learned to ignore our internal hunger and fullness signals, but our bodies know when and how much we should eat better than anyone or anything else.

Reconnecting with your body’s natural cues allows you to, quite simply, eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Which is really the opposite of emotional eating.

3. Identify triggers.

What exactly is it that leads you back to the pantry over and over again?

For some people it’s a lack of sleep—they confuse hunger with fatigue.

For others it’s the stress of work, family, personal responsibilities, or all three.

For still others it’s particular environments, like uncomfortable social situations or confrontations.

Identifying what exactly triggers you to eat emotionally is the first step to stopping it. When you’re aware of what’s making those French fries seem irresistible, you can then prepare yourself to have just a handful rather than the whole plate.

4. Prioritize “me time.”

Emotional eating is, at its core, a form of escape. Distraction. Avoidance.

So one of the best ways to stop doing it is by incorporating a healthier escape into your life—an escape that makes you feel better instead of worse, a distraction that doesn’t lead to a creeping number on the scale.

If you’re struggling with emotional eating, I challenge you to spend at least fifteen minutes every day doing whatever it is that you want. Not what you have to do, not what your kids or your partner wants you to do, but whatever you want to do. 

Call a good friend. Get lost in the pages of The Hunger Games. Watch an episode of Parks and Recreation. Embrace laziness. When you make time for self-care, you’ll soon find yourself less likely to turn to food to fill that void.

5. Wait 20 minutes.

The thing about emotional eating is that the food demands to be eaten right now.  You absolutely must inhale that cupcake immediately.

When that urge strikes, set your timer for 20 minutes—not so much to deter the emotional eating but to delay it. Make yourself a cup of tea and tell yourself that if the alarm sounds and you still really want that cupcake, then you can go ahead and eat it.

More often than not, you’ll find that after 20 minutes, the immediacy of the situation has lessened—and the hankering for something sweet has subsided on its own.

6. Watch funny cat videos.

Or whatever else it is that makes you laugh so hard your ribs hurt.

When a dozen donuts are calling your name, you need an alternative that will engage you mentally and elicit a strong reaction. Gut-busting laughter fits the bill. You know that feeling after a few minutes of heavy laughter, when you sigh heavily in a feeble attempt to catch your breath? That’s what we’re going for.

The best part is that the invention of YouTube has made it so that a good laugh is only a few clicks away.

7. Forgive yourself.

Sometimes, despite your best attempts, it will still just happen. You will check out for the night with a massive bowl of cereal—feeling better for about five minutes, and then feeling overrun with guilt.

But that guilt does you not one iota of good. Heck, the discomfort of feeling guilty could very well lead you to emotionally eat again!

Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself. Recognize that the past is just that—the past.

Have you ever struggled with emotional eating? If so, how do you cope with it? If not, what’s your best tip for managing stress? 

 Looking for more ways to stop emotional eating? My e-book includes a total of 30 of them! 


image via Wade Morgan

, ,

94 responses to “7 Ways to Stop Emotional Eating”

  1. I definitely struggle with emotional eating and I don’t really have any coping skills, I’ll either do it or not do it. More often than not, I’ll do it though. You are right that there is an immediacy to it that I guess I never really thought about before. I can see myself caught in those situations where I just need to eat that one thing that I shouldn’t. Also I sometimes push myself with external cues, like the clock, and my body is never very happy about it. I bought your book, so now I’ll have some coping options! Thanks for sharing!

    • I hope you find it helpful! Feeling out of control around food is a terrible feeling. It’s so empowering when you know that no matter what the situation, you have control over what you put into your mouth and body.

  2. I emotionally eat sometimes. Sometimes I enjoy it. Other times I choose no to do it. What helps are these…

    1. Stop and breathe. Just stand, sit, or lean and breathe for a few moments.

    2. Drink water.

    3. If needed and possible, take a short walk, do yoga, or go outside for fresh air.

    • Great tips! I especially love your first one—it’s amazing how much better I feel when I just stop and breathe for a few seconds! So simple yet so powerful.

  3. I’m not much of an emotional eater, but I do pay attention to how I snack at night so I don’t end up eating an entire bags of chips. I never eat straight out of a bag. I’m also the type that does better eating small meals throughout the day instead of 3 bigger meals. I think it’s all about listening to your body, as you noted!

  4. I love the “watch funny cat vidoes.” I am 100% an emotional eater. If I am happy, sad, angry… whatever, I just want to eat. Thanks for these tips! I am going to start downloading funny cat videos to have on hand! 🙂

  5. This is so great, Katie! I did this myself for years and some of these tips are what helped me. I love that you say to ditch any diet. There’s a reason the word “die” is in diet!

  6. I’m definitely an emotional eater, but I’m working on it.I’m trying to pay more attention to my body and my mind, and know when I’m truly hungry. These are great tips, and I was glad to see I follow them. But it always helps to be reminded!

  7. Great article, great tips! I am currently reading “The Power of Habit” which addresses, among many things about habits, exactly what you mentioned in #3: triggers. Habits are hard to break because we are hardwired to the triggers. If we can identify the triggers, then maybe it will be easier to overcome the habit (in this case, emotional eating). 🙂

    • Sounds like a good book! It makes total sense that if you don’t fully know what’s setting you off in the first place, you can’t really prepare to do something different in that situation.

  8. I do have to confess that I have a bag of valentine M&Ms in my desk and I was taking them out when I got to your post in my Bloglovin feed!
    I’m actually not really an emotional eater. I can’t eat unless I’m hungry. Last night I ate dinner before a birthday party and it had a lovely spread. My friend made a dessert plate for me and I took it into the living room while we all played a game. It was untouched until I was hungry. My friend thought I was nuts because it was right there and I wasn’t eating this plate of goodness.
    I did eat it eventually, but I was hungry! Not to say it was food I should be eating, but I don’t do that unless it’s a party.

    • I find that I don’t really enjoy the food unless I’m hungry, so if possible, it’s always worth it to wait for hunger to strike. That’s awesome that it comes naturally to you.

  9. I struggle with this all the time. That and I just like to eat. Nom, nom, nom. Haha. I like to journal throughout the day. Before meals seems to work for me. It helps me tune into my feelings. Sleep is a must. If I am tired, life just falls apart.

  10. Very helpful post, Katie. I know if I stay up too late I will find myself snacking. Also, avoiding dealing with issues used to send me to the kitchen. I lost 60 pounds in 2009 and conquering my emotions and the way I dealt with emotional situations was key in my weight loss.

  11. This is a great list! Lisa and I talk all the time about emotional eating, because it is something we both struggle with a lot. Everything you said is so true. I am definitely trying the timer trick tonight! :)-Ashley

  12. I struggle with emotional eating too. I’m working hard to reform my ways but it is hard sometimes! I love gotten a little bit better this week. I’m switching things up a bit and trying to drink more hot tea instead of blowing through 1/2 a bag of chocolates.

    • I use that strategy too. I tell myself to drink a mug of hot tea FIRST, and then if I still really want the chocolate I can have it afterwards. Usually the tea does the trick!

  13. Emotional eating is me when I’m bored lol. I could definitely use tip #2 and eat when I’m hungry instead of by the clock. I also need to stop gorging myself after a bad day and find alternatives to relieve stress. Because usually one piece of chocolate isn’t enough, and then I justify all that eating because of a bad day!

  14. I definitely have emotional eating issues- and so does my dog! The best remedy is to just get out- like out of the house- and go for a ride or walk. Instead of sitting at the computer and munching away on chips or ice cream…

  15. Like Marnie above, I’ve read The Power of Habit. Great book!

    Diets don’t work, but I think there is a nutritional and biochemical aspect to emotional eating. If you aren’t getting the nutrition you need, your brain is not able to react in the manner it needs to, causing cravings, emotional eating, etc.

  16. I can confidently say that I do not emotionally eat! I eat when I am hungry and (TYPICALLY) stop when I am full. My body tends to get hungry at the same times every day too, which makes it easy for me to recognize when I am actually hungry and when I might be “hungry” because my emotions say so!

  17. Thanks for giving me permission to binge on cat videos, Katie! Mission accepted! Your #2 tip is a great one too. I often each lunch really early and people often give me odd looks. But I figure, if I’m hungry early I should just go with it … they can set their own eating agenda!

  18. Thanks for this post!! I am forwarding it to my daughter and friend as well!! I never thought of myself as an emotional eater, more so emotional starver as I tend to forget to eat when upset, but I do eat when nervous or excited or tired! And I will most definitely be trying the “watch funny cat” videos from now on! Thanks!

  19. Boredom was always my main trigger for emotional eating. I can relate to what you said about staring down at the bottom of the carton, box, etc. and wondering where the food went. And I absolutely love the tip to ditch dieting for good!

    All of my kids are grown and gone so fruit and nuts are usually the only snacks I keep in the house. If I splurge on a decadent dessert, I do it away from the house and split it with my husband. I’ve learned by trial and error that a couple of spoonfuls, eaten very slowly, will satisfy my sweet tooth. And when I do make desserts at home, I send the leftovers home with the grand kids. 🙂

    • You bring up a really good point about mindful eating. When we actually pay attention to our food, we are often satisfied with a much smaller portion.

  20. You’re so right– diets don’t work. You have to change your mindset, but it’s not an easy thing to do. You’re also correct that we don’t listen to our internal hunger “thermostat” and continue to eat. Great suggestions!

  21. I love this post! Emotional eating is a problem for most of us, I think! Sometimes it comes in the form of binging, and other times comes in the form of no appetite. When I struggle, I try to do something in the form of calming my body another way – reading a good book, snuggling with my own kiddos, or taking a walk outside. That is probably what works best for me. Thank you for sharing! My own site is about well-being, and if it is o.k. with you, I may reference this post in one of my own articles! 🙂

  22. Haha! Yes–just did this last night. 😛 Came home upset with myself and still feel terrible this morning. For me, having a bunch of food allergies/sensitivities, the key is to prepare–bring healthy alternatives with me so I don’t feel left out when others are enjoying themselves.

  23. I try to find distractions to keep myself from snacking at night when I’m not really hungry because even if you are eating a “healthy” snack, you probably don’t need it. I find i do that a lot.

  24. Watch funny cat videos!! LOL! I love it.

    I really struggle with emotional eating. I have gained 30 more pounds since my husband suddenly became disabled and I feel physically awful. I am slowly trying to peel it off and I am not dieting or even weighing. I am trying to feed my body nourishing foods so I feel better and improve my health and avoiding sugar.I am not labeling sugar as bad, I am just acknowledging that it causes me cravings and it is not healthy, so I am really limiting it. I am also only starting to eat when I am hungry, which is helping but……. I am still working on not overeating. I have been overeating for so long that I don’t know what a normal person should eat. I am also leaning on God for support.

    • It can be really hard to change habits that are so ingrained in us that they come naturally. It sounds like you are doing all the right things to tune into your body and feed it what it truly wants and needs. I have been there so I know how difficult that really is!

  25. I’m an emotional eater as well, a condition that stems from childhood sexual abuse. Food was both my best friend and my drug. Going through that at such a young age programmed by brain to associate food with emotions. It’s a very hard cycle to break, but here I am at almost 39 and really giving it my all to really try and release the hold it has on my life. Thank you for this post.

    • I admire you for sharing this, and I commend you for trying to separate food and emotions despite your very challenging past. People like you are my heroes!

  26. This is an excellent post. I think sometimes too, when we are stressed, it’s that matter of “needing” something to do. Some grab a cigarette, some grab a bag of chips. If we can find a way to replace it with something constructive, we’ll feel better in more ways than one.

  27. I have really been trying to get a grip on when I am actually hungry and when I am full. I have also heard that sometimes thirst is mistaken for hunger so when I feel like I am hungry I try to drink some water first and only then if the hunger feeling doesn’t pass do I eat something.

  28. Very useful post! From time to time I also struggle with emotional eating, especially when my 1year 5months old son is just driving me crazy all day or things just aren´t coming out as they should.

  29. Those are some excellent ways to stop emotional eating. I have a tendency to reach for a snack mostly when I am bored. I have learned to reach for a book instead. In terms of diets, there is an excellent TED Talks video on why diets don’t work. You should check it out! A neurobiologist explains that our brains are hardwired to resist diets and, instead, we should listen to our hunger cues and become more mindful of what our bodies are telling us.

  30. Often people also confuse huger with thirst. The “hunger” pangs come from dehydration. Great article and read. Thanks for sharing. It’s less about short term change, but more about long term change.

  31. These tips are very helpful. Especially, the last one. Sometimes, we forget to forgive ourselves that we end up doing it again. Thanks for reminding us about mindful eating and the importance of taking good care of ourselves. Enjoy the weekend.

  32. These are great tips for emotional eating I totally struggle with that. I have learned to combat it with always having yummy super healthy food already prepped for snacking on. Lowering my calorie intake but making my tummy happy as I will happily avoid crap junk food as long as there is a ready to go alternative delicious option available.

  33. I’m going to do the “wait 20 minutes” one. I think that would work for me, because usually I get busy with something else, and won’t come back to the kitchen. Great tips.

  34. These are great tips, thank you! I’ve struggled with emotional eating in the past, but have been doing much better over this last year. I try to put my focus on doing something else, like exercise or a hobby, which has really seemed to help.

  35. I’m not an emotional eater but I do love me some chocolate. I should check out some cat videos to occupy my down time.

  36. Thank you for the post, I am usually eating on the run. I am so busy with the kids, I don’t realize that I hadn’t had anything to eat til late at night. Need to get better about the me time.

    Visiting from Commentathon

  37. I have struggled with emotional eating. I often find myself turning to food for comfort and sometimes when I’m just plain bored. These are excellent tips that are easy to take note of. Thanks so much for sharing and creating an opportunity for change.

  38. I don’t struggle with emotional eating but I think your tips are good to live a healthier life in general: delaying gratification, forgiving ourselves, laughing and taking time for ourselves are all important so life can be better in any aspect. Thank you for your wise words and for sharing!

  39. Goodness, this is a wakeup call! They say identifying the problem is half the battle . . . well the other half is not downing a full sleeve of Thin Mints watching Blacklist! I think I will have to come back here!

  40. Yes – I’ve struggled with it all my life, but I have found that my spirituality has really played a big part in not over-indulging, and my fabulous tribe that I can turn to when I’m stressed out…

  41. I definitely battle emotional eating…ESPECIALLY when going through a clinical depression episode. I’ve tried some of those tips, but I think the hardest thing is the fact that in the moment, I lose my desire to beat emotional eating. I stop caring. It’s hard to act against your urges when you don’t really care about the consequences, ya know? One of your tips that I haven’t tried is making sure I have enough “me” time. I’ll have to start working on that…maybe it can help! 🙂

    • I know what you mean! Why bother fighting the urge if, in that moment, you truly don’t care about the consequences? I try to remind myself that even if I don’t regret it immediately, I’ll regret it tomorrow or the next day or whenever it is I break out of the funk. Doesn’t always work but it’s worth a shot!

  42. TV is such a trigger for me. I associate it with chips or candy. At my best, I replace those foods with fruit or yogurt. At my worst, I give in…and try again the next day. Thanks for sharing these tips.

    • TV is a trigger for me too. Eating while watching television is a tough habit to break, but it’s doable! Replacing the junk with unhealthier foods is a great step.

  43. What a brilliant post. I will email it this out to several of my clients, and keep it available for myself. I am what you have described above. I love to eat. I find it hard to not eat when I am stressed, or bored, or happy, or standing within 10 feet of the fridge or looking at a pre-burgered cow… I saw somewhere recently the quote “the line between hunger and boredom is incredibly thin.” I have tried all the steps you listed above and they work! I love number 4. So many ladies I know work incredibly hard to accomplish a sense of purpose and dutiful existence, but do not know the benefit of just relaxing. Some men have a tendency to reward ourselves with food as a means of avoiding work. Thank you for putting this info all in one place.

  44. Good post. I have been the victim of emotional eating for many years. However, I have recently embraced a change in life style and incorporating a health food supplement into my life. It is amazing what happens to our eating desires and habits when we put good food into our bodies. This program not only puts the good in, but helps detoxify the body, releasing the bad things. When you do that, the cravings go away. Yippee!! I have released 20 pounds and over 28 inches. My eating habits have totally changed. Thanks for sharing.

  45. These tips are great! I’ve always been a bit of an emotional eater–especially when I’m upset. The first step is admittance though, right? Either way, I am in the process of trying to become more aware of my emotional eating and substitute it with other habits, which hasn’t been easy, but it’s been going okay. I’m certainly going to keep your tips in mind though to help me get through it.

  46. I have my secret chocolate stash that I tend to visit when we’re stuck inside and the kids are endlessly bickering. If it doesn’t warm up soon, I’m going to have to start buying my supply at the warehouse stores.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.