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?  

See more: family circle