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Curbing emotional eating

Bryn Mawr Hospital March 20, 2014 General Wellness
Last Updated on December 7, 2017 Last Reviewed By Stephen M. Mechanick, MD

Emotional eating is something we can all relate to; finding yourself in the middle of a bag of chips after a stressful presentation or on your second bowl of ice cream after a fight with a friend or loved one. Now, instead of becoming something we do solely for nourishment purposes, eating has also become a comfort.

Anyone who has been guilty of emotional eating knows it can be brought on by a variety of things. One negative encounter can trigger an urge to eat, but typically, feelings of anger, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, stress and sadness are to blame for a visit to the snack cabinet. While a piece of pizza or an extra scoop of ice cream every now and then after a bad day isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s when emotional eating becomes a pattern that it becomes a problem.

“Food is easy to get. It’s there,” says Stephen Mechanick, MD, chief of psychiatry at Bryn Mawr Hospital, part of Main Line Health. “But emotional eating usually involves making bad food choices and too much quantity, which can leave you with a feeling of guilt and lack of control.”

However, curbing emotional eating is often easier said than done. It takes a conscious effort to be able to stop turning to food as a source of comfort, especially if emotional eating has been a habit for a long period of time. Fortunately, there are some coping skills that can help you separate emotions from food.

Keep a food journal

Writing down what you eat is usually recommended to keep track of what you’re eating, but it can also be helpful in determining why you’re eating. Write down everything you eat during the day, but also record how you feel when you’re eating it. You may find ties between what you’re eating and why.

Make a list of healthy alternative activities

Instead of going straight to the vending machine, cope with a bad day by talking it out with a friend, writing down how you feel, reading a book or taking a walk. This can help you sort out your feelings and give you time to cool down after an emotional situation.

Take a 20-minute break

If you’re tempted to eat, give yourself 20 minutes to think about what’s bothering you. Are you really hungry, or are you just using food as a comfort for a bigger situation? If you discover that you’re still hungry, grab a snack, but you might find that those 20 minutes give you the time you need to figure out what’s really wrong and address that, instead.

Keep healthy snacks on hand

If you know you’re likely to turn to popcorn, chips or chocolate after a hard day, keep it out of the house or away from your desk. Instead, have healthier options like fruits, veggies and yogurt so you won’t binge on high-calorie goodies.

Follow these tips, says Dr. Mechanick, and you should be able to change your emotional eating habit.

“Food is an easy distraction,” he explains. “But it won’t solve a problem, and it can become an unhealthy attachment if you continue to turn to it. Using coping skills can help you better understand when you’re hungry and when you’re really just upset.”

If you're having trouble handling stressful or difficult situations that might be causing you to turn to emotional eating, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form to make an appointment with a behavioral health specialist.