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Health & Wellness Articles  ›  Emotional Health

Stop Emotional Eating Before It Starts

15 Ways to Turn Off Your Emotions without Turning to Food

-- By Nicole Nichols, Health Educator
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Eating is more than something we do to nourish our bodies with vital nutrients. It's also an activity we do out of habit, like nail biting, hair twirling, or finger tapping. And sometimes, we habitually turn to food in response to certain emotions. Whether you feel angry, sad, bored—even excited—food can act as a buffer against these emotions, something 82 percent of you know all too well.

Emotional eaters know that it's easier to stuff down our feelings with each bite. We know that the fleeting "high" we get from food blocks the pain or discomfort of dealing we might be feeling, even if only temporarily. We also know better; in the long run, we still feel bad and we know that we shouldn't eat for purely emotional reasons. But that knowledge isn't enough to stop what feels like an addiction to food and eating. So where do you start if you want to stop eating emotionally?

It may be cliché, but the first step is awareness, recognizing that you do eat emotionally—and WHY. Each time you reach for foods (or even feel a craving come on), ask yourself, "Am I really hungry or am I just responding to something else that is happening?" If hunger isn't the reason, it's not always easy to pinpoint the reason why you feel like eating. Tracking your food can help, especially if you note the times you eat and how you were feeling before, during and afterward. By tracking your food (and related notes) more regularly, you could notice trends, like a tendency to overeat on Mondays, for example, and then pinpoint your true feelings from there. Ask yourself what it is about Mondays that leads to overeating (Stress from getting the kids to school? Anger over going to a job you hate?) Notice if you tend to munch in the evenings. Is it out of boredom, loneliness, or an unhappy relationship? Journaling (or blogging), in addition to tracking your food intake, can help you examine the causes of eating episodes so you can pinpoint your feelings.

While emotional eaters soothe themselves with food to avoid feeling and examining uncomfortable emotions, that gratification is temporary—and still painful, just like the emotions you're trying to avoid. But if you learn to recognize the emotional triggers that lead to eating, you can also learn to stop emotional eating before it starts by choose healthier ways to deal with your feelings. Here are some alternatives to eating that can help you deal with three of the most common emotions that can lead to eating.
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About The Author

Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
Nicole was named "America's Top Personal Trainer to Watch" in 2011. A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, she loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Her DVDs "Total Body Sculpting" and "28 Day Boot Camp" (a best seller) are available online and in stores nationwide. Read Nicole's full bio and blog posts.

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Member Comments

  • In this bizarre narcicistic egocentric society of ours, where everyone is told from early childhood to waste an inordinate amout of time worrying about their feelings, perhaps some better advice is to dispense with the navel-gazing.

    I also have to wonder why any entity, like this site, for example, supposedly committed to helping people live healthier lives would add fuel to the fire of shirking personal responsibility. It's much easier to say, "Oh, I'm an EMOTIONAL eater! I eat because FEELINGS!" rather than owning up to the fact that you eat too much because a) there's too much food lying around, and b) you lack the self-control not to buy it/eat it.


    I'm successful when I am honest about why I eat: it's pleasurable. When I overeat it's a flaw in my character; I have not adequately mortified the flesh.

    Whether this mortification is approached from the spiritual angle, or simply as a matter of common sense, controlling one's baser insticts is an end to which anyone who seeks to attain any kind of sense much strive.

    - 6/2/2014 8:53:38 AM
  • Easy to say "exercise" but, in the evening when you are winding down for sleep, exercise isn't good. During the day, I can avoid the emotional eating but evenings is when it hits--can't call people too late--and volunteering, etc doesn't work at night either. - 5/5/2014 2:31:28 PM
  • DARW17
    I know hoe to eat healthy but since menopause I crave junk food in the afternoons and then I am tired and I don't do anything to burn it off. I have packed on albs over the winter. Im trying to change my habit but so far no luck!
    - 5/2/2014 7:22:53 AM
  • I admit to being an emotional eater. I'm also a subconscious eater -- I eat without realizing it sometimes. Especially when cooking, I'm always tasting. And that adds up. When I started regaining weight after the birth of my last child, I had to blame someone, so I blamed my husband. I told myself it was because he said he didn't care what I looked like. That was his response when I got discouraged when the baby weight didn't melt off in a day (figuratively speaking). He later said that he meant that he loved me no matter what, but that's not how my brain remembered it. It remembered it as I could balloon and grow warts all over my body and stop personal hygiene and he'd still love me. Okay, that's a little extreme. Now I have to consciously make decisions to stop grazing. When I'm cooking a keep a bottle of water or Crystal Light at hand, and any time I think of sampling, I drink instead. It's too soon to tell, but I hope it's helping. - 5/2/2014 2:40:41 AM
  • 82% of the population are emotional eaters. That's you, me and just about everyone. I think to move forward, we keep trying. But, break it down into daily accomplishments. If we can get past an hour. Get through the morning. Or afternoon. I think we think it has to be "all or nothing" and that is defeatist. Also, when we eat because of emotion or mindless, we aren't eating chicken. We are eating carbs. Sugar. Fats. so if or when we have to eat, try carrot sticks. I will never overeat on carrot sticks. But someone told me one time, that if you are craving something, have a little of it and be done and do it consciously...hav
    e that chocolate cake, limit yourself to one piece and eat it slowly that way you won't have the guilt. You acknowledged it and you satisfied your craving and then you can move on. I could eat a bag of carrots, but if I'm in a chocolate mood, I will still keep thinking about it until I have some. Sometimes, I am not emotional, but it is the taste that I am after and I don't have to eat a whole cake, to satisfy my taste buds and my mind. so really, you are NOT alone at all. - 2/18/2014 10:05:56 AM
  • How about FEAR? How about anxiety over not having life's basics yet living in the world's richest country? Or maybe it's just people I know. - 2/9/2014 10:28:38 AM
  • I read this, I KNOW this stuff--and I still do it. Sigh - 1/30/2014 10:03:39 AM
  • GINGERGRAPE
    The suggestions on page 3 of this post are invaluable. Thank you. - 1/28/2014 1:59:32 PM
  • Every thing I read and watch tells me I'm an emotional eater. But I eat after the stress has passed. If I'm anxious or upset I can't even see food or I gag. Does anyone else have this problem? I' m the person that just kept gaining weight and every time people would see me I was bigger. I almost never eat during the day mostly because I have an extraordinarily stressful life. In the past few days a a new member of this site I've been tracking my food. I allowed myself wiggle room just to I could really face what's going on. I was shocked to see I take in 80 percent of my calories as snacks at night. I mean 1,000 calories plus! Geeze I m glad I see it now. But I really want to understand it. I do not have a healthy relationship with food. But I'm getting better and stronger every day :) - 9/27/2013 4:07:46 AM
  • MOONS1918
    ok these r great ideas but wat do u do wen there is noone 2 workout with and u just cant get excited bout workn out all alone and lookn stupid cuz ur fat.....ive tryed writing letters 2 friends but they cant really help cuz they live states away from me.......i live n a town where there is litterally nothing 2 do except eat unless u kno ppl, which i dont.....i hav 1 aquantance but she got 2 kids and really not a reliable person......im not good at tlkn 2 new ppl......i want 2 do a fun activity 4 excersize so i wont hate it but i dont kno wat 2 do.....i love 2 swim but im to broke 2 pay 2 swim and the lakes and ponds n this area r toxic, literally...... - 9/12/2013 1:04:37 PM
  • When I am in Normal Mode I have the will power of a drill Sargent but when I feel sad ,angry or tired I eat EVERYTHING not because it tastes good or because im tempted just because I want comfort , I hope this article helps me - 7/12/2013 8:00:34 AM
  • Great suggestions as far as it went. But what about when you just want something that tastes pleasurable to eat? And what about addressing the emotional problems that also cause overeating? How does one turn off those? - 4/26/2013 2:24:55 AM
  • Good article, but those M&Ms shown in the picture do not get eaten for emotional reasons with me, just because they're there is reason enough! And one bite, and I can't stop! - 4/24/2013 6:12:40 PM
  • Boredom is the biggest one for me. I have always looked to food for entertainment. Going out for dinner with friends, reading at the coffee shop, having a drink or dessert as a special treat (is it still special when it happens almost every day? lol) - 4/24/2013 11:39:32 AM
  • Great ideas! I have tried em all and they work! It is especially hard for me when family members need help financially &I am unable to help them. I have to ask myself every day (if it is't meal time) "why do I want to stuff my face?"
    It sure doesn't hurt to read articles like this one. Thanks! - 4/24/2013 9:34:12 AM