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