8 Ways to Conquer Emotional Eating

By , Robert A. Barnett and Carol Landau, Ph.D., Family Circle
You’ve been putting in long hours at work, the kids have a busier social life than you do, you can’t remember the last time you made it to the gym and the pile of laundry is nearly as tall as you are. Before you know it, you’ve traded your to-do list for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, a bag of potato chips or whatever happens to be the object of your craving. The kicker? You’re not even hungry.
If you find yourself reaching for food as an outlet for stress, anxiety, sadness or even anger, you’re certainly not alone—and there may be a biological reason for it. According to Harvard Medical School, long-term stress can cause the adrenal glands to release the hormones cortisol and ghrelin, which are responsible for kicking up appetite.
And to make matters worse, people who eat for emotional reasons are more likely to reach for foods high in fat, sugar and/or salt. Not only are these “comfort foods,” but they also stimulate the brain's reward system. But after the fleeting moment of enjoyment, the bad feelings return—with a side of guilt. Over time, you need to consume even bigger amounts of those junk foods to get the same pleasurable feeling, just like chasing a high with other addictions, some research says. But there's a way to break the cycle. 

If you want to gain control of your emotional eating habits, follow this plan packed with tips that have helped some of our members—and can help you—conquer emotional eating once and for all.

Find Your Own Winning Formula

Take a minute to recall a past accomplishment. Perhaps you'll remember running a 10K or planning the perfect family vacation. Next, figure out what helped you succeed. Support from friends? Great organizational skills? Now apply those keys to success to your emotional eating. 

Get Stuff Done

Next time you're tempted to use snacking as self-medication, your to-do list can be a source of productive distractions. When SparkPeople member GERRTIE is tempted to turn to food to self-comfort or fill a void, she often goes out in the yard to garden or does a thorough cleaning of her house. "There's nothing like physical labor to relieve anger," she says. You might be surprised by how therapeutic it can be to finally clear out that junk drawer, sweep out the garage or organize those piles of paperwork in the office. You just might feel calmer and more in control, and you'll have kept those extra calories at bay.

Get in Touch With Your Feelings

Instead of trying to numb yourself with food when you feel sad or anxious, listen to your feelings. We love this analogy from member NIRERIN: "When you try to feed a non-food hunger, you will never get full. It's like continually putting windshield washer fluid into your car when what your car really needs is gas. No amount of windshield fluid in the windshield washer fluid container will suddenly make your car go if it doesn't have gas. You can shovel as much food in as you can, but it does not have anything to do with how you feel. Food does not fix frustration. Food does not fix sadness. Food does not fix anger. Or happiness, loneliness, boredom or any other emotion for that matter."
Member REBCCA recommends using meditation as a way to work through emotions. She uses InsightTimer as a source for hundreds of free online meditations, as well as music and nature sounds.) "Sit and consciously breathe deep and deliberate, getting in touch with your presence and the moment," she suggests.

Put Your Best Food Forward

Out of sight, out of mind may sound way too simple, but it's effective. Don't bring home ice cream for yourself; trash those candy bars sitting in your desk. You'll also want to maximize exposure to healthy foods by making fruits and vegetables more visible in the fridge or on the counter. That one small move can boost consumption of fruit by 18 percent and veggies by 25 percent, say Cornell University researchers. Store healthy foods you might go overboard on—nuts, dried fruit, air-popped popcorn—in controlled portions in a resealable bag.

Even better, know that eating more healthy foods can boost your mood in the long run. Psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, M.D., co-author of "Fifty Shades of Kale," often prescribes "brain foods," including walnuts, almonds, lentils, kale, red beans, fatty fish and eggs. "You can get habituated to good stuff, too," says Dr. Ramsey. "That's the great thing about the brain: You can always change it."

Stock Your Toolkit

For those times when stress, sadness, anxiety or anger creep in and threaten to derail your diet, you’ll want to have some non-food items at the ready. For anxiety or anger, buy a cushy ball to squeeze, a tennis ball to massage your shoulder blades or a guided meditation app to help you de-stress. Keep a small toy or puzzle around for when you take a break at work, so your hands will be too busy to grab food. Music is also a great distraction. (Try these 40 things to do other than eat.)

Defer Your Craving

If you feel like you absolutely must have that chocolate bar or bag of chips, make a deal with yourself that you can eat it in about half an hour. After the waiting period, your craving will likely be gone. If it’s not, go ahead and indulge, but keep the portions controlled—and don’t make it a daily habit.

Catch Some Zs

Did you know that when you don’t get enough sleep, you could have less self-control to resist making poor eating choices? If necessary, adjust your routine to include seven to eight hours of shuteye each night. When you’re well-rested, you’ll have the mental sharpness to kick those emotional cravings to the curb. (Try our sleep tips in our Sleep Center.)

Keep a Food Mood Journal

Ever crushed a plate of cookies and then wonder, “What happened?” Every time you eat, there’s a trigger. Ideally, it’s hunger—but often, it’s not. Try keeping a food journal, where you write down your feelings before and after each meal and snack. After a week, you’ll be able to look back, spot patterns and pinpoint what is driving the good and bad choices. For example, maybe you’ll realize that you tend to crave sugar when you’re saddled with work stress, or that you raid the refrigerator after arguing with a family member.
How do you conquer emotional eating?  

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Thank you! Report
great blog. Report
First paragraph: what does the to do list have to do with anything? I have an inherent distrust and dislike of testimonials, so wish they hadn't been included; however, there are some great suggestions in this blog--thanks for the info! Report
Sometimes the battle is harder than it sounds.
great. Report
great. Report
Good ideas but also need to consider whether it is emotional eating or just boredom. Report
Great ideas that I really need right now. Thanks Report
Good ideas, thanks. Report
good points Report
Have struggled with emotional eating for several years. The past 2 years I have come to realized how much I use food for comfort, and I'm addicted to sugar. With the loss of my dad last February, and the passing of our oldest daughter this February, I have been on an emotional roller coaster. Some days I am so motivated and confident, other days it's a struggle to get out of bed to face the day. Taking it 1 day at a time. Report
It is very much a daily struggle. When I am tired I feel hungry whether I am or not and at times can feel overwhelming but I can attest that the suggestions in the article can help idmf employed in time before it gets overwhelmingly Report
These are some great tips but as others have said this is a DAILY struggle and battle that is not always easy to avoid. I as well am an emotional eater and have tried several methods to no avail. One day, one meal at a time is how I deal with my emotional eating. Report
Both of my parents (long deceased) had extreme depression and it seems to run in the family. Emotional eating has been like a depression medication for me ever since childhood and it is a very, very difficult "drug" to get unhooked on. I will eat everything I can get if I have a stressful incident. The only thing that works for me is to not have binge quantities of sugary or salty food around in the house. Report
I think I like what oolala53 said...stay focused on 4 or 5 days a week and then allow a bit of freedom for the weekend. I think that would help with my menu planing too. I know what to buy and eat and I don't have to think too hard. Then for the weekend? relax a little bit or at least not beat myself up with what I put into my face. lol. Report
I am huge emotional eater. I tend to binge on salty foods especially fries, chips, wafers the list will goes on. The tips sounds good i'll surely follow them. Report
for me it's about journaling how I feel that helps. Also going for a walk helps too. I do chat with God about my feelings as well. Report
I have no problem resisting sweets, it's the salty snacks I have trouble avoiding. When I'm especially stressed, I go for the peanut butter, chips or nuts. Portion control means nothing to this emotional eater. It's really tough not to reach for the comfort foods. Using some of the suggestions in the blog should give me a handle on the problem. Report
The best defense for me has been committing to a meal plan 5 days a week that includes no sweets. At first, I thought it would be impossible, but it wasn't! But I did overeat sweets on weekends for a long time. That was okay with me; it was way better than overeating them every day, and I knew that those who are sensitive to sweets do better if they go for 4 days at least at a time without them. Eventually the contrast between eating well most of the time and cruddy feelings from overeating on weekends made it easier to drop the overeating. But I still enjoy some sweets a few times a month. I would never have thought a few times a month would be enough, but it's more than enough. I just like leaving room for other foods more! It took a few years but I didn't give up and 44 months later, I am so glad.

But also convincing myself that it was worth tolerating the anxious feelings that made me want to eat was crucial, too, as noted above. I had told myself for years that those feelings were awful, terrible, and too hard to take. I realized that wasn't true. They are uncomfortable and annoying, but they are totally bearable, especially for such a good cause. Peace with food! Report
Triathletegirl yes you are right! I am an emotional eater and preportioned snacks won't help, I will eat them all (maybe more slowly if they are in baggies) in one evening! I just can't bring sweets and goodies home that I will binge on. I can keep goodies out of my house since I live alone but to those who live with someone who likes and can eat sugary salty snacks, I don't have any advice except to tell your partner to hide them! Report
There were some good tips, but most of the tips are for normal people looking to lose a few pounds. An emotional eater won't care if the nuts are put in individual pre-portioned ziplocks. We will eat all the portions in the house. The best advice in this article for emotional eaters is to not bring food home in the first place. Then again, I guess different things work for different people. Report
I like the blog. But I wanted ti save it. Couldn't fine out how. Report
These are all great tips. I am going to pint it up and use some!! I am a huge emotional eater and I have now been given some tools to help conquer. I needed to read this today because I resolved that since it is a new month, I have to start anew and get back on track. Report