After a stressful day at work, an argument with a loved one, a late night out or a bad breakup, we’ve all, at one time or another, sought comfort at the drive-thru, in a bag of chips or that cliché pint of ice cream.
It’s called emotional eating and while, in a perfect world, you’d only eat when your body signals that you’re legitimately hungry—you are human after all. Sometimes, a cake calling your name from the kitchen counter will get the best of you, and before you know it, you’ve gone too far, eaten the whole thing, and then you have to deal with a whole other monkey on your back—the shame monster.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the technical definition of emotional eating is, “Eating to escape, numb, change or amplify our feelings” and that can range from something as innocent as boredom to eating to fill a more serious void caused by grief, trauma or pain.
The good news is that emotional eating is normal, common and relatively harmless if you can keep it in check. But it’s important to know the difference between the occasional overindulgence known as emotional eating and the clinical version of overeating known as binge eating.
Emotional eating typically crosses over into binge eating territory when you ask yourself how else you’re coping with the issues driving you to seek comfort in food, how much you are eating and how often you are doing it. If the answers look a little grim, it could be time to seek help. Take the quiz at the end of this article.
7 Ways to Overcome Emotional Eating
Eating to comfort oneself goes deeper than just the fact that the foods we typically reach for taste so darn good. They actually trigger a relaxation response known as a parasympathetic response, or “rest and digest”.
The second we take that first bite of a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth muffin, a state of relaxation washes over us. It’s easy to see why food is a go-to soother for millions—27% of Americans to be exact—because it works.
But there are other, healthier ways to induce the same feeling of calm that doesn’t derail your health and weight-loss goals. Try these 7 ways to overcome emotional eating.
1. De-junk your home
You’ve heard this one before but there’s no denying that keeping junk food out of your home is one of the best deterrents to emotional eating. Clean out your pantry, fridge, freezer and any other places that chips, chocolate and candy may lurk. If you’re going to treat yourself, make it a special occasion by ordering dessert when eating out, having a bag of popcorn at the movies or venturing out for ice cream.
2. Stock up on healthy snacks
Once you’ve removed temptation, it’s time to stock up on healthier snack items so that you have options when the urge to nosh strikes. Load up on mixed nuts, unsweetened, dried fruit, veggies and hummus, apples and nut butter, dates, frozen fruit like pineapple and mango, clean jerky or make your own snacks with these healthy recipes.
3. Avoid boredom
Idle hands are the devil’s work as they say and boredom often leads to overindulging. Cultivate new habits to keep yourself busy when boredom sets in, such as tending to your house plants, catching up on current events online or listening to a new podcast or an audiobook while you tidy and tinker about the house.
4. Give it the 10-minute wait test
Did you know that most urges and cravings for food, alcohol and more disappear in about 10 to 15 minutes if you don’t act on them? It’s called the delay tactic. If you can recognize your craving but delay acting on it for just 10 minutes (and stay busy with something else), more times than not, the urge will pass. It requires a little mental toughness, but the more you employ this tactic, the easier it gets.
5. Find new ways to cope with stress
There are many other ways to activate a parasympathetic response than with comfort food. Exercise, meditation, yoga, deep breathing or breathwork, walks in nature and even getting a massage are all proven ways to stimulate a parasympathetic response that is just as relaxing —but infinitely healthier—than comfort food.
6. Don’t deprive yourself
As mentioned, emotional eating is perfectly normal and it’s okay to give in to your cravings every now and again. The key here is to build your diet around a solid foundation of real, nutrient-dense foods and eat well at least 80 percent of the time but still leave room to relax a little and give into your cravings a couple of times a week.
7. Keep a food diary
It’s so easy to forget a nibble here and a bite there throughout the day. Keep it honest by starting a food journal to monitor your indulgences over time. This is not to shame yourself but more to keep an eye on how often it’s happening, if you need to reel it in or if perhaps you are dealing with a more serious disorder that could benefit from outside help.
When to seek help
If you’ve tried some of the tactics in this article but your urge to soothe yourself with food feels bigger than you, it could be time to seek help. Take this quiz to assess the possibility of disordered eating and talk to your doctor about options for developing a healthier relationship with food.
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