Effective strategies for dealing with emotional eating

Emotional eating can be defined as unconsciously eating large quantities of comfort foods in response to our feelings instead of hunger.

So it’ll be no surprise that before we can begin to address our weight loss, health and well-being wishes, we need first to explore our emotional attachment to the food we eat.

For most of us, emotional eating manifests when we feel emotionally bereft, alone or bored. Initially, the food can bring us comfort but often this short-term solution prevents us from gaining insight and skills that will help to easily and effectively resolve our emotional issues.

Is your overeating emotional or physical?

The first step to managing and overcoming emotional eating is to uncover whether you are currently overeating for emotional or physical reasons.

Is it emotional or physical diagram

Physical hunger comes on relatively gradually and generally doesn’t leave you feeling guilty after eating. You’ll be able to postpone physical hunger for a short while by simply having a glass of water and you’ll be able to stop eating when you feel full whilst at the same time being satisfied with the food you have eaten.

If you are emotionally eating, you may feel cravings to eat comfort foods like cake, biscuits, crisps, pizza or stodgy things like cheese burgers. You may find your desire to eat comes on very quickly and strongly (which is extremely hard to talk yourself out of) or is triggered at certain time of day, or when you are experiencing particular emotions such as anxiety, stress or holding yourself back from expressing your true feelings.

Due to the speed and immediacy of the cravings, emotional eating can wash over you within seconds, which can often lead to feelings of guilt and self-hatred because you’re left wondering how on earth you just managed to demolish an entire pack of biscuits.

What makes us emotionally eat?

“Gluttony is an emotional escape, a sign something is eating us” – Peter De Vries

Emotional eating is a highly effective adaptive process that you may have adopted to “fill up” a hole that has been created somewhere in your life – either spiritually, emotionally or physically.

It also serves as a great “numbing” agent, to tone down potentially painful or disruptive feelings or emotions which your subconscious mind would rather not process right now.

So when looked at this way, emotional eating isn’t a behaviour adopted by the weak. It’s actually a highly effective behavioural strategy designed to ultimately keep you safe.

The problem is of course, it that it has less than desirable side effects.

So if you have been giving yourself grief for having no control over your eating habits, relax… there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s simply a communication breakdown between your conscious and subconscious mind right now that needs a bit of love and attention.

Identifying your triggers

Here are some typical triggers that could be setting off the emotional eating: (Take notice of any words below which resonate particularly strongly with you… it may be exactly what needs a little attention in your life right now)

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Boredom
  • Loneliness
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Poor self-image
  • Lack of confidence
  • Problems with relationships
  • Problems at work
  • Lack of control in our lives

By identifying what triggers your emotional eating, you can substitute more appropriate behaviours or activities to manage your emotions in the moment.

Here is a great video from Jessica Ortner on how to deal with cravings using Emotional Freedom Technique.


10 Top Tips for managing emotional eating

Most of us are emotional eaters on some level and with this in mind, here are a couple of suggestions to help you become more relaxed and mindful whilst preparing and eating your meals.

  1. An important aspect with regard to feeling around food is to recognise, are you ‘stomach hungry or mouth hungry’ i.e. is your craving for food emotionally based or are you actually feeling hunger pangs in your stomach?
  2. Begin by taking a deep breath and start by having a small appetiser, look at the presentation of the food.
  3. Focus on your meal savour and smell it sit at the table turn the TV off and put your book away. Don’t mindlessly sit just shovelling the food in your mouth not even tasting it.
  4. When eating, slow down so that you may recognise a feeling of satisfaction – i.e. being full.
  5. Put down your knife and fork, while you chew your food and stop eating as soon as you begin to feel full.
  6. Become aware of yourself and STOP ask yourself “Am I eating because I am stressed, anxious or bored” if you answer YES then STOP and think “what else can I do other than eat”? Perhaps read, watch a film, listen to music or go for a walk.
  7. Ensure you get at least 7 to 8 hours sleep per night as the quality of sleep is essential. Poor sleep or lack of sleep can cause disruption and may lead to depression and in turn, an increase in appetite, especially in relation to sweet food
  8. Clear your fridge and cupboards of junk food, snacks, chips, crisps, cakes and buns, biscuits, remove temptation. Fact; if you are an emotional eater you will probably let go of the negative emotion around junk food, long before you decide to leave the house for a chocolate fix.
  9. If you eat when you feel stressed or anxious try some stress management techniques such as; meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, exercise, relaxation.
  10. Write down what, when, how you eat, how you feel around food, when and how hungry you are. By keeping a food diary you will begin to see a pattern emerging and you will then also be able to see a link between food and mood.

The most important thing is to treat yourself with love and respect and make the decision to stop beating yourself up, you are doing the best you can at this time.

And remember, you are both powerful and magnificent. You are more than you believe you are, and you deserve more than you believe you deserve.

For some great resources to help deal with emotional eating:

Maggie Irwin Portrait

Hi! I’m Maggie and as a Hypnotherapist, Master Practitioner of NLP, Mental Health and Wellbeing Professional with 35 yrs experience in the NHS and private sector, I’m here to help you release the past, recover your courage and design your most magnificent life.

Learn more about me here.