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Emotional Eating: What Helps

Joy Manning
woman eating ice cream

Does stress, anger, or sadness drive you to eat? Do you turn to food for comfort, or when you’re bored? Many people do. If you often eat for emotional reasons instead of because you’re physically hungry, that can be a problem.Obeying the urge to eat more than you need is a sure-fire way to gain weight. It’s an even bigger problem if you already have health conditions like diabetes, obesity, or high blood pressure.

You can get back in control of your emotional eating. The surprising part is, it’s not really about food at all.

You might not even realize you’re doing it. One of the biggest clues: “Eating until you are uncomfortable and stuffed is a sure sign something is going on,” psychologist Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD, says.

Another clue: You’re gaining weight and you don’t know why. Don’t assume that it’s just that you’re getting older or slacking on the treadmill. Consider how you’re doing emotionally, and whether that might be affecting your eating.

“Self-compassion is the first step toward learning to comfort yourself in other ways.” — Leslie Becker Phelps, PhD

Be Kind to Yourself
Once you’ve realized this is happening, the first thing you should do is give yourself a break.

“Greater self-compassion is the first step toward learning to comfort yourself in other ways,” Becker-Phelps says. Beating yourself up over it only adds to your stress, which can lead to more emotional eating.

Next, pay attention to the thoughts and feelings you have before you eat. “The more aware you are of your inner experiences, the more you can choose how to cope with them,” Becker-Phelps says.

Seek Solutions
The solution to emotional eating is less about eating than it is about emotions.

You can start with a simple step. “Make a list of what is stressing you, and make a plan to take control of the situation,” New York psychologist Patricia Farrell, PhD, says.

If you can change the situation, go for it. If the problem is out of your control, you can manage the way you think about it. If you can notice your stress in the moment, you can choose how you respond, rather than reacting the way you have in the past.

Consider talking with a counselor so you can better understand what’s going on with you and the best ways to handle it. Even a few sessions may help.

Press Pause
It helps to add a delay between the urge to eat and actually eating. That gives you time to check in with how you’re feeling and why you want to eat.

When you get the urge to eat a cookie out of sadness or boredom, remember that you have the option to wait it out. “Saying to yourself ‘I’ll have it later’ gives the impulse time to pass,” Farrell says. Even if it doesn’t, successfully delaying the snack helps you feel more in control.

“Wear a rubber band around your wrist, and snap it whenever you reach for the jelly beans,” Farrell says. The snap is your cue to be mindful about what’s about to happen.

Get Moving
When you’re tempted to snack for emotional reasons, try moving instead.

“Just walk in place for 10 minutes,” Farrell says. Even a quick burst of activity refreshes you, and moving is a proven stress-buster. You’ve replaced the urge to eat with something else.

Keep It Real
The truth is not all emotional eating is unhealthy. It’s normal and natural occasionally to eat to celebrate with friends or because you’re feeling blue. “It only becomes a problem when it is used frequently and even in the face of unhealthy consequences, such as medical issues,” Becker-Phelps says.

Published: July 28, 2014. By Joy Manning, Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS
Copyright © 2014 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved

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