We’ve all been there. A particularly stressful day, a bad break-up, a deadline looming, and you find yourself elbow deep in your comfort food of choice. For me, it used to be ice cream. No matter what I was dealing with, I always knew I had two shoulders to cry on: Ben and Jerry.
Even after adopting a ketogenic lifestyle though, this is something that took work for me to overcome. I mean, the keto-comfort food I was opting for was certainly better than a pint or two of some sugar-loaded ice cream, but there is nothing healthy about eating 15 handfuls of almonds in one sitting. Or an entire block of Cracker Barrel Vermont Sharp White Cheddar. …Or both.
If you’re an emotional eater, you know as well as I do that in the heat of the moment, it seems almost impossible to resist the pull of the pantry. Fortunately though, this is just another bad habit and the key to breaking it is being equipped with strategies to help you identify and change the behavior.
Awareness is probably the most important step in overcoming emotional eating. Being able to identify both when and why you’re doing it is essential, and in order to do that, it helps to better understand the behavior.
Emotional eating has actually been studied pretty extensively. It’s typically defined as eating (and usually over-eating) in response to a feeling or emotion.
While emotional eating does appear to affect both men and women, the behavior is more frequently seen in women and there may actually be differences between men and women in the mood/feeling that triggers it (with perceived stress, worries, and anxiety being the primary triggers for women).
It’s more commonly linked with negative emotions, but it can also be associated with positive feelings. Certain social cues, like celebrating an accomplishment with a fancy meal or using food as a reward, are very common positive triggers of emotional eating (I think we all can attest to that).
So whether it’s in response to negative or positive emotions, why do we do it at all?
Well, there are multiple theories behind this...
Some theories suggest that emotional eating is a dysfunctional coping mechanism used by someone experiencing psychological distress and/or negative self-assessments.
Further supporting this, studies have shown a correlation between obesity-related eating behaviors and depression, stress and anxiety.
After what has likely been years of emotional eating, the habit can become so ingrained that when you’re going through ‘the feels,’ your very first impulse is to reach for food. It can become so automatic that it’s difficult to even distinguish between “emotional hunger” and true, physiological hunger.
I think we’ve all been there before… I know I have many times!
Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, this behavior is essentially just a habit you’ve developed over time and like any bad habit, it can be broken.
This is a great way to start practicing mindfulness in your food choices, eating times, and eating environments. Whether you opt for one of the countless apps available, or doing it old school by physically writing it down in a journal, you’ll be able to gain a lot of insight into your eating behavior by tracking what you eat, when, and where.
A key component to food journaling is also taking note of how you’re feeling at the time you’re eating. By doing this you’ll start to gain insight into some of your eating behaviors, and even which feelings seem to trigger your emotional eating.
*Pro Tip: Log your food BEFORE you eat it. It may seem irrelevant whether you log your food before or after you eat it, but you’ll be surprised how big of a difference this can make!
Not only will it give you a couple extra moments to really evaluate how you’re feeling to determine whether you’re feeling emotionally or physically hungry, but seeing your food choice will also help you hold yourself accountable.
For me, sometimes just seeing what a comfort-food (even the keto-friendly ones!) did to my macros would be enough to make me either delete it and skip the snack, or at least opt for a healthier option.
As you’re logging (or writing down) what you’re about to eat, take a moment to really evaluate the hunger you’re feeling.
Table 1. The difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger.
It comes on suddenly.
It comes on gradually.
You’re craving something specific.
You’re open to eating anything, doesn’t have to be a specific thing.
You don’t feel satisfied with the fullness afterwards.
You experience fullness, at which point you can stop eating.
You feel guilty or shameful afterwards, and even while you’re eating.
There’s no guilt associated with it, you don’t feel bad afterwards.
“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior.”
Personally, I think this is probably the most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to making it easier to break an emotional eating habit.
Every habit is initiated by a cue and we are more likely to notice cues that stand out. One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it.
For example, you leave work at the end of the day in a stressful state and your normal routine is to come home and open the refrigerator for a snack.
The cue is coming home to a stocked refrigerator. But, what if you left work and instead went to the gym or met a friend for a walk. You’ve now not only eliminated the cue, but also changed the environment that triggered the cue.
Habits can be easier to change in a new environment and it’s easier to build new habits in a new environment because you are not fighting against old cues.
This also ties into the importance of being aware of your eating behavior at particular times and in certain places.
Once you’ve successfully been able to identify the behavior, your triggers, and your environment cues, you’ll be far better equipped to start breaking the bad habit of emotional eating and begin replacing it with some more positive habits.
If your ‘go-to’ comfort food in the midst of an emotional episode is high-calorie, high-sugar ice cream or a huge bowl of buttery popcorn, why not replace it with something that’s high in volume but low in calories AND has actual nutrients to support your goals? Enter → The Ultimate Hunger Hacks Guide AND The Protein Hunger Hacks Guide.
Try out a bunch of different activities or outlets until you find one that works for you. Maybe it’s a phone call to your bestie to vent for a few minutes. Journaling is another great option, especially when you feel like you need to get something off your chest. It could even be something as simple as breaking out the adult coloring books. It doesn't matter what it is, as long as it is an effective outlet for you.
Research suggests that mindfulness meditation can effectively reduce emotional eating in people who are struggling with it. Meditation can seem daunting if you’ve never done it, or if you’ve only dabbled (trust me, I’ve been there).
But try starting out with something short like 5 minutes a day and work your way up. There are also plenty of apps with things like guided meditations, which are especially helpful for beginners. I personally meditate for 10 minutes every morning using the Waking Up app by Sam Harris. It takes time to get into the habit, but once you do, it’s a game-changer!
If all else fails, do whatever you can to take your mind off it, even just for a few minutes. Sometimes even just 5 minutes of distraction can be enough to get you over the hump.
Get active. Take a quick walk, or do a light round of yoga. Doing something physical may help get you out of your head.
Try picking up a new hobby. Maybe it’s reading a new book, listening to a podcast, or playing a new instrument. Even short, 5-minute sessions devoted to learning something new could make a huge difference, both in the skill that you’re trying to pick up and in helping you overcome your emotional eating habit.
This one may seem obvious, but it can be hard enough to resist emotional eating without the added temptation of a comfort-food that you really love and enjoy. For me, if I know there’s a jar of peanut butter in the cabinet with a spoon close by, I’m almost always going to think about it when the feels start coming. Rather than suffer, I now only keep single packets of peanut butter around so I’m not tempted to dive into the jar face first.
It’s hard enough to break a habit, don’t make it harder by keeping temptations around that will only serve to trip you up. Get those temptations out of the house OR replace them with a better option. If you haven’t downloaded the FREE Hunger Hacks Guide yet, get on it!
I hope these tips help! Remember, awareness is the first step. Find ways to create awareness around your behaviors and you’ll start to learn how to work towards changing those behaviors and creating better habits that work FOR you rather than against you!
If you need further guidance with this, don’t hesitate to reach out at [email protected]!