8 things you need to know about emotional eating

Do you frequently eat when you’re not really hungry? Read on to learn about emotional eating and what you can do to stop it

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eating chips

Are you an emotional eater?

If you often find yourself munching when you’re not hungry-especially if you’re reaching for foods high in carbs or sugar-you could be eating emotionally.

“A lot of people have trouble distinguishing [true] hunger from emotional hunger,” explains Natasha McLaughlin, a registered dietitian at Santé Optimal Health in Moncton, N.B. “It may be sadness, anger or fear-any emotion people are having a hard time coping with.”

The problem is, eating won’t actually help you handle emotions. You may feel better temporarily, but that brief high (usually caused by a rush of serotonin) is often followed by feelings of guilt-which may lead you to seek more comfort from food. “It’s a vicious cycle of masking emotions versus dealing with the real issue,” says McLaughlin.

Here’s what you need to know to put a stop to emotional eating.

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food journal

1. Monitor your eating patterns

To identify which emotions compel you to consume, start by keeping a journal to detail what you’re eating and how you feel at the time. You can purchase an inexpensive notebook to stash in your purse or desk drawer, or you can download a printable food journal template.

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small snacks

2. Plan your counter-attack

Once you know which emotions cause cravings, list ways to deal with them. For deeper issues, you could benefit from talking to a dietitian or therapist; for short-term troubles such as a stressful day, pick activities that help you unwind. McLaughlin suggests exercising or watching sitcoms for a healthier pick-me-up.

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3. Do a reality check

To decide if you really need to eat, think of a food you only like when you’re hungry. “If I have actual hunger, peas and beans seem appealing, but if it’s not a true hunger, they don’t,” says McLaughlin. “Everyone has a different food they can use.”

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healthy food

4. Strive for balanced meals

“[Avoid] eating a lot of one food group and not enough of another, which a lot of women do when they’re on diets-for example, they tend to cut out carbohydrates. The irritability and moodiness associated with lack of carbs can lead to emotional eating,” says McLaughlin.

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reading food labels

5. Develop good habits

“Read food labels-it makes us accountable for what we’re consuming. Also, put food on a plate. When eating emotionally, people tend to eat from the bag or box,” says McLaughlin. She also recommends offering whatever you’re eating to others. “This is a way to make sure we’re not eating and hiding it,” she says. “There’s no guilt in eating if we’re actually hungry. Sit at the table, eat slowly and enjoy the food.”

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6. Avoid “trigger foods”

These are the foods you crave when you’re upset. “That doesn’t mean we can’t have these foods, but when they’re in the house, access is too easy, and we tend to turn to them too quickly rather than dealing with the emotions,” says McLaughlin.  If you reach for the Doritos every time you feel overwhelmed, it may be a good idea to leave them out of your cart on your next trip to the grocery store.

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sleeping at night

7. Get more sleep

A less obvious cause of emotional eating is lack of sleep. Ghrelin, a hormone that signals hunger, rises if you don’t rest enough. At the same time, leptin, the hormone that signals fullness, decreases. This double whammy could lead to overeating. Plus, being tired could increase irritability-and cravings for comfort food. If you feel like you’re consistently not getting enough rest, try these tips to get more sleep tonight.

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Setting short and long term goals

8. Be kind to yourself

“Expect changes to be difficult and expect there to be obstacles, but don’t get discouraged,” says McLaughlin. “It’s important to be realistic and build on small successes. [Emotional eating] is not something that will change in a month or two.” If you find yourself getting stuck on setbacks, try taping a motivational note to your fridge or document your successes in your journal. When you’re having a challenging day, you can reflect on these positive messages and find motivation to keep going.


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