Getting a Grip on Emotional Eating
These strategies can help you take control of your eating even when stress hits.

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Getting a Grip on Emotional Eating

Do you find yourself standing in front of the fridge when you're bored? Do you use doughnuts to help calm down when you're stressed? Do you reach for the box of chocolates to celebrate good news?

If you consistently use food to deal with your changing moods, you may be an "emotional eater".

Emotional eaters typically use food to block out or soothe negative emotions such as: stress, anger or irritability, depression or sadness, loneliness, anxiety, boredom or guilt.

And it might not be only negative feelings. You may reach for treats to celebrate accomplishments or raid the cupboards when you enter your childhood home.

The problem is that turning to food for comfort can cause weight gain. This can lead to numerous health issues - especially because many emotional eaters choose high-calorie, sweet, salty and/or fatty foods.

Though food may help make you feel better in the short run, the satisfaction is only temporary. Food can't take away your feelings of loneliness, guilt or anxiety. So in time, your worries return.

What's more, you now are burdened with the guilt of overeating (and potential weight gain)! This can easily trigger yet another eating episode, creating a downward cycle.

Are you ready to take charge? You can regain control of your eating habits, but it will take discipline and thought. Here are some tips to help you get started:

Put it in writing. Keep a food-mood journal to track your eating habits. Note what you ate, when, where and how you were feeling/what you were thinking. Track also whether you were actually hungry.

Look for patterns. Over time, you may see patterns emerge that reveal certain triggers. For example, you may notice that cravings strike every afternoon at 3 p.m. To avoid this, you may choose to take a walk during your afternoon break before the craving hits. Or, you may decide it's the perfect time for a healthy snack you've planned.

Seek comfort elsewhere. Your patterns may show that you hit the cookie jar whenever you feel lonely or stressed. Instead of a cookie, think about what else might soothe your soul. Take a walk, listen to music, call a friend, practice deep breathing or start a project you've been putting off.

Eat balanced meals. Try to eat balanced meals at regular times that include wholesome carbs, lean protein and healthy fats. Strive for whole grains, vegetables and fruits, nuts, low-fat dairy and lean proteins.

Choose healthy snacks. Focus on nutritious snacks that provide protein and carbohydrates. Some ideas: whole-grain crackers and cheese, apples and peanut butter, low-fat yogurt topped with fruit. You can even have an occasional sweet treat.

Sleep soundly. Many people turn to food as a pick-me-up when they're tired. And if you're chronically tired, you may find yourself often in a bad mood - and turning to food again and again. But food usually can't help with fatigue. Your best bet is to get enough sleep at night - 7 to 8 hours is ideal for most adults.

Get in touch with your hunger. Pay attention to physical hunger cues, such as a rumbling stomach. You want to eat when you are physically hungry - not emotionally hungry. This can help to stop the cycle.

Remember, changing habits takes time. You likely will have a few bad days that may cause you to relapse. But don't give up - just note what triggered you to eat and figure out how to prevent it in the future.

Emily A. King contributed to this report.

By Jane Schwartz Harrison, RD, Contributing Writer
Created on 03/23/2006
Updated on 02/26/2013
  • Emotional eating.
  • American Psychological Association. Mind/body health: Obesity.
  • United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary guidelines for Americans 2010.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Improving your eating habits.
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