There's no denying it: food can make you feel good. There's nothing better than getting to indulge in your favorite pasta dish at dinner, sip on a warm latte in the morning, or share a stack of fluffy pancakes with your friends over brunch. However, food can also be used for reasons outside of filling an energy need. If you've noticed you resort to eating food during sad, happy, or stressful times, you may be practicing emotional eating.
To combat mindless stress eating, we asked dietitian nutritionists to explain just what emotional eating is, the negative side effects, and how to stop emotional eating.
What is emotional eating, and what causes it?
"Emotional eating means that you eat for reasons other than hunger," says Amy Kimberlain, RDN, LDN, CDE, registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Emotional eating is a recurring, unconscious attraction toward foods that fulfill an emotional void or distracts you from what's really bothering you. This may include emotions ranging from stress, sadness, frustration, and anxiety to name a few."
While it may have negative connotations, emotional eating may not always be prompted by negative emotions.
"Emotional eating can also be linked to happy times," adds Kimberlain. "Think about how you celebrate big achievements and special occasions, or even just define fun outings. We treat ourselves to our favorite foods to define a moment of pride or joy, and we link activities like going to a movie with getting to indulge in candy."
What are the negative side effects of emotional eating?
"Emotional eating can be okay in moderation. It's when this behavior becomes a bad habit where it can be an issue both physically and emotionally," says Kimberlain.
If uncontrolled and repeatedly done over time, Kimberlain tells us that emotional eating can cause a number of possible weight-related health conditions such as:
- weight gain
- high blood pressure
- type 2 diabetes
- high cholesterol
It also can have a heavy impact on your mental health.
"The mental health consequences can trigger symptoms of anxiety or depression, or worsen symptoms in people already living with these issues," says Kimberlain. "This is when emotional eating is used as a coping mechanism, and you're avoiding dealing with the underlying issue."
17 tips to stop emotional eating.
If you find yourself in the throes of emotional eating, here are 17 tips from dietitian nutritionists to help you stop emotional eating.
1. Identify any triggers you have.
"While eating is emotional and it's okay to occasionally soothe our emotions with food, it becomes problematic if that's the only way we know how to soothe emotions," says Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Bucket List Tummy.
It can be helpful to identify any triggers you have that may cause you to turn to food. Some common examples include:
- a fight with a friend or spouse
- poor performance review
- a bad grade on an assignment
- an impending project deadline
If you have awareness of what the stress trigger is, you can try to proactively put some other self-care measures in place to help ease the emotions. Schlichter recommends these self-care replacements for emotional eating triggers:
- read a book
- call a friend
- walk around the block
- take a shower or bath
2. Write it down.
"Now's the time to buy that new food journal you've been eyeing!" says Charlotte Martin, MS, RDN, CSOWM, CPT, registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Shaped by Charlotte. Martin gives the following simple instructions:
- For one week, write down (a) what and (b) when you eat.
- Next to each eating/drinking occasion, write down (a) what you were doing and (b) how you felt at that moment (i.e. happy, sad, bored, anxious, stressed, neutral, hungry, etc.)
"Although it may seem daunting at first, tracking both your food intake AND any emotions you were experiencing at each eating occasion can help you identify emotional eating behaviors and what's triggering them. It can also make you aware of the types of foods you tend to gravitate towards when you eat emotionally," says Martin.
3. Reward yourself with something other than food.
"If you are always associating happy or bad events with food this could very easily lead to emotional eating that happens frequently," says Maggie Michalczyk, RDN, a Chicago-based registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Once Upon a Pumpkin. "Instead replace a food reward of let's say ice cream with something like painting your nails, or taking some 'me time' to read or journal."
4. Eat consistently throughout the day.
"Oftentimes I see clients eat from a place of emotions in the evening because they're under-nourished during the day," says Chelsey Amer, MS, RDN, CDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Chelsey Amer Nutrition and author of Thrive in 5. "Aim to eat balanced meals (with a protein, veggies, carbohydrates, and healthy fats) when you feel hungry throughout the day. Avoid getting over-hungry because that makes it more difficult to eat well-balanced meals."
5. Find other ways to deal with stress.
"Discovering another way to deal with negative emotions is often the first step toward overcoming emotional eating," says Kimberlain. "This could mean writing in a journal, reading a book, or finding a few minutes to otherwise relax and decompress from the day. It takes time to shift your mindset from reaching for food to engaging in other forms of stress relief, so experiment with a variety of activities to find what works for you."
6. Get moving.
"Some people find relief in getting regular exercise. A walk or jog around the block or a quick yoga routine may help in particularly emotional moments," says Kimberlain.
In one study, participants were asked to engage in eight weeks of yoga. Researchers then assessed participants on their mindfulness and insightful understanding—basically their understanding of themselves and of situations surrounding them. The results showed that regular yoga may be a useful preventative measure to help diffuse emotional states such as anxiety and depression.
7. Slow down when eating.
"When you eat to feed your feelings, you tend to do so quickly, mindlessly consuming food on autopilot. You eat so fast you miss out on the different tastes and textures of your food—as well as your body's cues that you're full and no longer hungry," says Kimberlain. "But by slowing down and savoring every bite, you'll not only enjoy your food more, but you'll also be less likely to overeat."
8. Keep trigger foods out of your pantry.
"Identify what foods you typically gravitate towards when eating emotionally and try removing them from your pantry and eyesight," says Martin. "The reason emotional eating can turn into such a huge health issue is because we typically gravitate towards high-fat, high-sugar foods, and beverages during these times, not leafy greens and water. By removing these foods, and replacing them with something a little healthier, you may be more likely to take pause before emotionally eating and/or engage in something non-food-related. And if you decide to go for it, you'll fill up on more fiber-rich and protein-rich foods, which help reduce cravings later on."
Adds Martin, "For example, if you indulge in something sweet like cookies when feeling sad, replace it with fruit and nut butter. If you indulge in something savory like chips when stressed, replace it with roasted chickpea snacks."
9. Ask yourself WHY you're eating.
"Emotional eating is not always inherently a bad thing. However, it's important to partake mindfully," says Amer. "If you notice yourself emotionally eating, pause and ask yourself why. Just identifying that you're eating from an emotional state is a step in the right direction."
10. Don't deprive yourself of your favorite foods.
"One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle is avoiding certain foods not perceived as healthy," says Kristen Smith, MS, RD, a registered dietitian at Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta, GA, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "It's common for people to overindulge in foods when they avoid certain foods in their diet, especially when they experience emotional triggers."
11. Make a mindful food decision.
"The truth of the matter is that food is connected to our emotions, and certain foods may remind you of your childhood, or certain ones you hate because they made you sick," says Michalczyk. "Rather than fighting this urge in every situation, make a mindful choice when you are turning to food in emotional situations. Can you make a pizza healthier by adding vegetables? Could you bake something healthy and delicious? Reframing emotional eating from, let's say, turning to fast food every time something bad or good happens to perhaps making something at home, etc. can make a huge difference, too."
12. Try a mindful eating exercise.
"Slowing down and savoring your food is an important aspect of mindful eating, the opposite of mindless, emotional eating," says Kimberlain. "Put your utensils down between bites, and really focusing on the experience of eating. Pay attention to the textures, shapes, colors, and smells of your food." Ask yourself:
- How does each mouthful taste?
- How does it make your body feel?
"By slowing down in this way, you'll find you appreciate each bite of food much more. You can even indulge in your favorite foods and feel full on much less. It takes time for the body's fullness signal to reach your brain, so taking a few moments to consider how you feel after each bite—hungry or satiated—can help you avoid overeating," says Kimberlain.
13. Focus on your breath and count to 10.
"The act of focusing on your breath and counting forces you to stay in the present," says Schlichter. "If you find yourself heading into a territory where you feel powerless and out of control, try to focus on your breath to bring you back to the present moment. Check in with yourself and see if there are any other coping mechanisms you could utilize in this moment."
Schlichter recommends coping mechanisms to stress eating like:
- calling a friend
- going for a walk
- snuggling with an animal
- taking a bath
- lighting a candle
14. Catch some zzz's.
"Aim for 7 to 9 hours of good quality sleep per night," says Martin. "We know that sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on our stress and appetite-regulating hormones, which then leads to cravings for high-fat and high-sugar foods. There's also evidence to suggest that sleep deprivation can predispose us to emotional eating because a tired brain is less able to handle emotional experiences with controlled and logical responses. A well-rested brain is better able to deliberately respond to emotional triggers, making you more likely to think twice about reaching for a cookie after a stressful day."
15. You can help prep for a full night's sleep by trying a few things.
"To help you fall and stay asleep, try engaging in relaxation techniques before bed, like yoga, meditation, or guided imagery," says Martin. "Tone down the blue light at least two hours before bed, and consider turning on a diffuser with lavender essential oil to set a calming mood. You can also try a magnesium supplement (specifically magnesium glycinate) before bed. Magnesium helps promote natural calm and relaxation."
16. Get support.
"Similar to rewarding yourself with something other than food, exploring a different coping mechanism is another good option if you feel like emotional eating is becoming a problem. Perhaps it's time to meet with a registered dietitian, or talk to someone," says Michalczyk.
"Just like with anything we deal with on our own, things can feel very lonely and isolating. But it's important to know that you're not alone, and you can learn to cope with your emotions differently no matter where you are on your journey with your emotional health or nutrition choices."
17. Ask yourself if you're really hungry.
"When you have a need to fuel your body with food, you will likely experience physical hunger signs such as stomach emptiness and growling, or weakness and fatigue," says Smith. To stop emotional eating, "learn how to identify head hunger versus physical hunger. Being able to identify true physical hunger will help you better understand when your body actually needs fuel." One of the best ways to do this is by using a hunger scale.