Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Emotions getting the best of you? If you’re relying on food to cope with uncomfortable emotions or even happiness and excitement, you can officially call yourself an emotional eater.
Truth is, everybody fits this description because everybody does it at some point. “Emotional eating is natural because eating is emotional,” says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, New York City–based dietitian, nutrition therapist and author of Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace With Food and Transform Your Life (Victory Belt Publishing, 2021). “Cooking, baking and eating are all ways in which you connect with others and care for yourself and the people you love.”
Yet when emotional eating leads to negative self-talk, that can throw you into a shame spiral that contributes to even more emotional eating, says Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, author of Gentle Nutrition: A Non-Diet Approach to Healthy Eating (Victory Belt Publishing, 2021), nutrition therapist and owner of Rachael Hartley Nutrition in Columbia, South Carolina. You’ll also struggle if emotional eating is your only form of coping.
So how can you help quell that emotional eating? Follow these 10 tips:
- Know that emotional hunger is a valid reason to eat. Food doesn’t just provide sustenance for your body. It also affects the way you feel. “That means it’s a totally natural thing to use as a coping mechanism,” Rumsey says.
- Accept emotional eating for what it is and move on. Surprisingly, trying to stop emotional eating may make things worse. “If you feel guilty and ashamed any time you eat for reasons other than physical hunger, it can be worse for your body than the eating itself,” Rumsey says. “Shame creates a stress response and causes physical side effects that can affect your digestion and sleep, increase inflammation and more.” Plus, it’s likely you’ll stay in the vicious emotional eating cycle, so accept it for what it is — a coping mechanism — and move on once it’s served its purpose.
- Cultivate multiple coping skills. Coping strategies can fall into several different categories, including connection, relaxation or calming, pleasure, movement and release, Rumsey says. And by having more than one coping strategy, you’ll be armed with tools to help you handle the various emotions and situations everybody deals with on a daily basis. To help you nail these down, make a list of coping strategies you can try and put that list somewhere you can see it. For instance, if you want connection, call a family member or play with a pet; for movement, you might go for a walk or have a good cry. Want to relax? Meditate, listen to music or read a book. Pleasure might include putting on a cozy sweater or sitting outside in the sun. The next time your emotions drive you to eat, pull out the list and pick one of the tools.
- Be intentional when you use food to cope with emotions. Food can be a helpful coping tool, but it should be something you enjoy and doesn’t carry guilt or shame, Rumsey says. Make a list of all the foods you enjoy eating, and the next time you want to eat because of emotions, sit with the food and notice how it smells, feels in your mouth and tastes. Guilty feelings popping up? “Remind yourself it’s OK to eat this food, then notice how you feel after eating,” she adds.
- Eat mindfully. Rather than eating food quickly in front of an open refrigerator or pantry door, try using mindfulness to eat that food. Put the food on a plate and savor each bite. “This gives the food a chance to actually help you feel better,” Hartley says. You can then ascertain if the food isn’t — or is — enjoyable or helping with your emotions.
- Inventory your support system. Having people you can lean on, especially during difficult or stressful periods, can make all the difference. This may include your partner, family member, friend or therapist. Rumsey recommends asking three questions: What support systems do you have in place? Which people in your life could offer you support during difficult times? In the event you need more support, what is your plan? “Ideally, you’ll have at least a handful of people you trust to be open and vulnerable with,” she says.
- Make sure you’re eating enough throughout the day. As obvious as this sounds, many people aren’t aware that hunger can cause many of the emotions that make you turn to food, including anxiety, fatigue and anger. “It’s commonly said that food doesn’t fix the problem, but sometimes lack of food is the problem,” Hartley says. So make sure you’re eating a meal or snack every three to four hours, and if you’re struggling to remember, set an alarm to remind you.
- Avoid making certain foods off-limits. When Hartley sees a client who’s emotionally eating regularly, it’s often a sign he or she is restricting certain foods, which can backfire. “If you give yourself full permission around all foods and no foods are off-limits, it’s unlikely you’ll turn to food as a primary way of coping,” she says. Practice eating the foods you emotionally eat as a part of your normal, balanced meals. For instance, eat a couple of cookies with your usual soup and salad lunch.
- Check in with your emotions throughout the day. If you’re pushing aside your emotions all day, you may have a greater tendency to struggle with emotional eating. That’s something Hartley has found among her clients, and she offers this advice: “Notice how you’re feeling throughout the day, which gives you an opportunity to soothe uncomfortable emotions before they get too intense.”
- Seek help. Emotional eating often gets confused with the most common eating disorder, which is binge-eating disorder. “It’s characterized by feeling out of control while eating a large quantity of food in a short period of time and typically results in eating to uncomfortable levels of fullness, eating alone and/or intense feelings of shame,” Hartley says. If this sounds familiar, get professional help.