How to keep emotional eating from ruining your weight loss

What emotion sends you to the refrigerator or the snack cupboard, or both? Angry, elated, confused, sad, bored, anxious, depressed, joyful, lonely… or all of these and more?

Emotions can be uncomfortable. Food is used to regulate the discomfort and try to feel something good instead of bad.

Emotional eating is arguably the major reason for obesity. It’s the swiftest way to end a successful diet. As a culture we have a habit of “stuffing our feelings.” We use food for more than fuel; we use food to help us cope. It’s plentiful and legal making it a perfect choice to cope with whatever bothers us whenever we need it.

Every action we make is driven by the need to escape pain or to gain pleasure. I mean every action, even self-destructive actions. In other words, there is always a positive intent behind everything we do. I don’t eat a bag of chips because I want to make myself fat and unhappy. I eat them because I am unhappy and I’m using the chips to try to feel better.

A few chips nicely complement a ham sandwich, but no matter how many chips you eat, they can't take away your emotional pain but they may make it worse!

A few chips nicely complement a ham sandwich or taste great with a dip. No matter how many chips you eat, they can’t take away your emotional pain, but they may make it worse!

Emotional eaters turn to food to try to feel better – at least for a little while. Stuffing down feelings with highly palatable food can provide temporary distraction and brief pleasure. It also has a rebound effect. It’s both the way people ease pain and the cause of more pain.

It’s not unusual for diets to cause people with poor coping skills more pain and it’s a particularly nasty cycle. The pain causes overeating, the overeating causes guilt and weight gain, the guilt and weight gain cause pain, and the pain causes more overeating. The cycle is established and hard to break.

The cycle needs to be broken. Easier said than done, but possible. If you’re an emotional eater who’s tried to stop the behavior and was unable, it’s not because it’s you can’t do it. it’s because your approach was missing some essential elements necessary for success.

One thing is for sure, emotional eating gets worse when we follow diets that are too restrictive. Diets that keep us from eating enough to feel full and satisfied or restrict us from eating certain foods or food groups, usually end with a full-fledged, out-of-control, emotional eating episode.

It’s a mistake to think “if I can stop eating (fill in the blank with what you usually choose to eat when under any emotion or stress) cold-turkey when I’m feeling overly emotional. I just won’t do it.”

Stopping an unwanted or negative action requires replacing it with a positive action. Here is a winning strategy to overcome emotional eating step-by-step.

1. Follow a healthy and satisfying lower-calorie food planYour food plan should provide all the essential nutrients, enough calories to provide satisfaction but slightly fewer than your body uses for its energy needs. It must have room to include a few treats. It’s important that you can fit in and eat your emotional go-to foods as part of your overall food plan.

2. Have a list of non food strategies ready. What activities do you enjoy? What relaxes you? How can you blow off steam without eating? What might be soothing? Typical solutions include:

  • talking to a trusted friend or family member
  • finding a comfortable place to sit while allowing your mind to go to a “happy place”

    I'm going to close my eyes and see me "sitting on a dock in the bay!" I'm going to imagine I can smell the saltwater and feel the sun on my face and hear the cry of the gulls!

    I’m going to close my eyes and see me “sitting on a dock in the bay.” I’m going to imagine I can smell the saltwater and feel the sun on my face and hear the cry of the gulls.

  • taking a bath
  • singing in the shower
  • taking a brisk walk
  • cuddling (people or pets)

    A cuddle or a pic (if the object of your affection isn't close enough to cuddle) works a lot better to comfort than high-fat/high-calorie food eaten hastily and served with a giant heloing of guilt!

    A cuddle or a pic (if the object of your affection isn’t close enough to cuddle) works a lot better to comfort than high-fat/high-calorie food eaten hastily and chased with a giant helping of guilt.

  • looking at pics of favorite places or people
  • meditating
  • breathing exercises
  • dancing
  • reading
  • writing in a journal
  • going for a ride (car, bike, boat)
  • yell
  • punch a pillow
  • allow yourself to cry instead of holding back the tears
  • Add your own ideas to this list. Be creative.

3. Allow yourself to feel to identify the emotion. Turning to food in response to emotion happens so fast you may not even realize that’s what you’re doing until you are halfway into an emotional eating episode. When you have an urge to eat and it’s not connected to physical hunger, take a deep and ask yourself, “what’s really behind my need to eat?”

4. Pick one or more coping solution from your list. Find what works to ease the discomfort of the emotion. You might also find that experiencing and working through the feelings brought on by the emotion is healing.

5. Practice the steps for managing emotional eating with visualization. When you’re in a calm, stable state of mind think of the steps you are going to take next time you feel like stuffing down an emotion with food. Think about a recent upsetting incident that lead to your using food to cope. Now insert the different ending! See yourself engaged in a solution from your list.

Use all of your imagination to make it feel as real as possible. Feel the power of being in control and the good feelings you get from that. The more you “practice in your mind” the easier you will find it to change your behavior when faced with a real situation. It’s the same technique professional athletes use to stay at the top of their games.

It’s not bad or wrong to continue to use food to cope. If that’s your choice, own it. In other words change your self-talk from “I can’t help it” to “this is what I want right now!” Changing your self-talk puts you back in control and with control comes the power to manage your eating.

Managing your eating means you don’t grab a container of ice cream and a spoon and go to town. It means you serve yourself 1/2 cup serving and count it on your food plan. Instead of shoveling the ice cream (and guilt) into your mouth, you take time to savor the flavor and creaminess so that the experience is enjoyable rather than creating guilt (more unpleasant feelings.)

As with many weight management actions, handling emotional eating is a skill. It’s an especially difficult skill to learn and master. Don’t expect to be a pro the first time you try. It’s okay to be a beginner.  Stay positive and keep practicing until it becomes as easy as tying your shoe or riding a bike.

Jackie Conn

About Jackie Conn

Jackie Conn is married and has four grown daughters and four grandchildren. She is a Weight Watchers success story. She's a weight loss expert with 25 years of experience guiding women and men to their weight-related goals. Her articles on weight management have been published in health, family and women's magazines. She has been a regular guest on Channel 5 WABI news, FOX network morning program Good Day Maine and 207 on WCSH.