9: 5 Steps to Break Free from Emotional Eating

Apr 17, 2023

When people hear the phrase ‘emotional eating’, there’s a tendency to associate it with crying over a tub of Ben & Jerries, or stress-munching your way through a pack of cookies. While it's common for people to turn to food for comfort as a way to cope with big, difficult feelings, there are many other situations where we might find ourselves eating emotionally.  

Have you ever attended a dinner where you end up having dessert just because everyone else is? Have you celebrated someone’s birthday and eaten a slice of cake despite being full? Have you snacked on something when you’ve been bored at work? These are some prime examples of how normalized emotional eating is in our society, but the impact it has on our health can be detrimental.

What is emotional eating and why is it a problem?

In contrast to physical hunger, which is when your body gives you signals that it's hungry such as a rumbling tummy or low energy, emotional eating is when you eat for any other reason than physical hunger. It does not just have to be when you’re sad or stressed, it can also be when you’re angry, bored, or even experiencing positive emotions like excitement or joy.

The problem with emotional eating is that a lot of the time, it is stopping you from truly experiencing certain feelings because you're masking over it with food. Food will not solve the underlying emotions that need to be dealt with. Eating may distract from the feeling for a short while, but it does not solve the deeper issue. In addition, regular emotional eating when you’re not physically hungry can have a huge impact on reaching your weight loss goals. 

So how can we begin to tackle the problem of eating when we’re not physically hungry?  

Firstly, it’s important to be aware of the four phases of healing emotional eating and understand that it is not a linear process. You do not move through the stages, get to the end and you’re done. It is much more fluid, and you will go back and forth between these phases as you go through your weight loss journey. This is completely normal and expected.

Four stages to healing emotional eating

  1. The first stage is when you catch yourself after you have eaten emotionally. You might experience some shame or some regret after realizing what you have done.
  2. The second stage is when you notice you’re emotionally eating while in the middle of doing it. Despite this, you can’t stop.
  3. The third phase is noticing it before you do it, but you still continue to emotionally eat. You might say things like ‘I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I still went and did it.”
  4. The fourth and most evolved phase is catching it before you do it, and then not emotionally eating. This usually takes a lot of time, patience, and practice. It takes a while to get to this place where you have the tools to recognize what’s happening and not feel the need to then emotionally eat.

If you have a hard time with weight management, or if you have chronic obesity, you need to be aware that you don’t just escalate up these four stages and when you get to the last stage, you’ve conquered emotional eating. This is an ongoing process that needs to be constantly managed. It's a continuum and it oscillates with time, so the quicker we can learn that it doesn't need to be statically perfect all the time, the easier it will be to have compassion and understanding for yourself that this is going to ebb and flow.

5 steps to decrease emotional hunger

When we look at how to decrease emotional hunger, there are some important steps you can take that will help you in your journey.

1) Remember that the goal isn’t zero. 

The goal is not that you're a hundred percent only using food for fuel. In the same way that as a clinician treating binge eating disorder, the goal is not to eradicate binges altogether. In fact, the thought of never binging again is very triggering for most people struggling with that disorder. The goal is simply to see if we can stabilize it more. Can we reduce the frequency of binges, because if the expectation is zero, we’re just setting ourselves up for failure. There are going to be times when it will rain, so it’s about making sure we have an umbrella and the strategies in place to protect us. We need to make sure we talk to someone about it, and know how to support ourselves during it.

2) Balance your meals

A lot of emotional eating can show up in patterns. For example, if you’re someone who might skip breakfast because you’re not hungry, then get really busy at work and just have a few bites, you might get home at the end of the day, ravenous, tired, and frustrated. This then leads to a massive overeat where you can't stop yourself. 

One of the solutions to this kind of problem is to start working on balancing out what's happening earlier in the day. When we start to balance out the times that you're eating, you’ll notice that the urge to really overeat, usually goes down significantly. 

In addition to the timings, it’s also important to balance the types of food you’re eating. Make sure to get a good mix of some protein, some vegetables, and some carbohydrate, with a strong focus on protein and vegetables. The reason this is important is because often by the time you're in that emotional eating zone, you're not thinking about how to support yourself. Therefore, emotional eating usually ends up being very urge driven. You opt for things that taste good, often high in fat and sugar.

Think about adding, rather than subtracting. If you are in one of those emotional eating patterns, see if you can add some protein and veggies first. It will slow you down. Your blood sugar will be more regulated and then even if you do go and eat all of those other things, your blood sugar is going to be more stable. Jessie Inchauspé’s book ‘Glucose Revolution: The Life-Changing Power of Balancing Your Blood Sugar’ has some amazing techniques to help balance your blood sugar.

3) Have a plan and options in place

When you're having an emotional overeat, you won't be able to be cool and calm and collected.

Planning is the best chance that you have to be successful in those times. 

This could look like making sure you get your house stocked with a few staples once a week. 

Make sure that there are certain things that are always in the house that will serve you well, like Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, vegetables, eggs etc. This is crucial because if you do not have easy access options, it will not work for you. 

4) Spend time not overeating at a time when you used to

This may sound a little obvious, but the reason it’s important is because you're not feeling your emotions at the time of an emotional overeat. So we've got to learn to start expressing that in a controlled way, and peeling the food back to see what's really there.

For example, if you often have a snack at night when you're not hungry, you can start to slowly explore this in a way that’s comfortable for you. Experiment one week by not having that snack by once or twice, and see what comes up for you. You might be thinking it’s really unfair, you really want to eat that, and questioning why your partner can eat that. But usually, there's something else underneath. What it usually comes down to is that you're really tired, really exhausted, and you don't know any other ways to take care of yourself besides making a snack at night. It gives you a little bit of that dopamine hit.

In the beginning, this can feel overwhelming because you've never sat there and done this kind of work before. However, it's an opportunity to have lots of compassion and love for yourself that you are even willing to do this work. Take some time when you say no to the food in the name of feeling and seeing what's actually there. Usually there's so much other stuff going on that we can start to slowly and lovingly unpack and unpeel our feelings, in order to lead us to a much more healed relationship with food. 

5) Expect and allow 

There will be times at the end of the day, when you’re tired and exhausted, and you have those thoughts about reaching for a bag of chips to make you feel better. Expect that this thought in your mind is going to tell you to grab that bag of chips, because you’ve always done that, and just allow the thought to be there, to not act on it, and to look at this in a different way.