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Emotional Eating. Understanding and changing habits.


Does reaching for a pint of Haagen Dazs or a bag of chips when you’re stressed sound familiar? If so, you may be an emotional eater. Emotional eating is when we turn to food (usually unhealthy food) to make us feel better. Maybe it’s a stress reliever. Maybe it provides comfort. Or maybe it’s a reward for a bad day at work.

Whatever the cause, emotional eating can sabotage even the best attempts at weight loss.

Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, not gradually like physical hunger. It demands instant satisfaction and is usually in response to a certain event or feeling.

Which leads to the first step to overcoming emotional eating triggers – identify what feelings cause you to reach for that comfort food. I recommend my clients keep a journal and write down the circumstances and feelings that cause them to want to eat immediately. Common causes are stress; ‘stuffing’ negative emotions such as loneliness, fear, sadness, anger or resentment; boredom; and/or longstanding habits, often dating back to childhood.

Once you’re able to identify the feelings that cause you to want to eat, you’re on your way to loosening their hold on you.

To overcome the emotional eating challenge I recommend the following steps:

First of all, as I mentioned, a food and emotions journal. Note what you’re feeling, what you’re craving, how hungry you are, the time of day, and what and how much you eat.

Learn to manage your stress more healthfully. Try going for a walk, taking deep breaths, meditation, squeezing a stress ball, or whatever helps you calm yourself.

Redirect yourself. If you’re bored and eating mindlessly, distract yourself. Go for a walk, read a book, call a friend, take a bath, or find a hobby that you enjoy.

Pay attention to your stomach. Ask yourself if you’re really hungry or if you’re experiencing other feelings.

Remove the temptation. Don’t buy that fall-back, emotional eating type food. And don’t go to the grocery store while you are feeling the urge to eat. Wait until you’re able to get a handle on how you’re feeling.

Keep healthy snacks on hand. Snacking between meals is okay. Just try to pre-plan the foods you want to eat, so you’re not responding to your emotions. Keep fruit, veggies, popcorn and other healthy snacks around.

Remember – everything in moderation. I’m a strong believer that nothing is forbidden. When we completely deprive ourselves of foods that we love (that are considered unhealthy), we tend to crave them, then give in completely to our cravings. Eat a variety of healthy foods so you don’t get bored and enjoy an occasional treat. Do it thoughtfully, not emotionally, and keep portions in check.

Don’t throw in the towel with a setback. Learn from it. And focus on the positive changes you’re making to improve your health. Tomorrow is a new day.

Find a support network. Do you have friend or family member you can lean on? Having someone support us and keep us accountable helps us maintain our good habits.

Take care of yourself in ways that don’t involve food. Take a bath, light some candles, or get under a blanket with a good book or your favorite TV show.

If you’re having trouble controlling emotional eating, take it one day at a time. Creating new habits is not easy. You didn't develop those emotional eating habits overnight and you won't create new habits overnight, either. Congratulate yourself for moving in the right direction.

And let me know if I can help!


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Karen Marcouiller

Personal Trainer and Health Coach

National Sports and Conditioning Association (NSCA)

American Council on Exercise (ACE)

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