Emotional eating, or stress eating, can be defined as eating for reasons other than physiologic hunger. We all do it! It’s completely common and normal, and not always a bad thing. When emotional eating becomes a problem is when we feel out of control, and when we are using food to relieve a discomfort that would be better addressed in a different way. Food often provides a temporary comfort but then we are still left feeling anxious or stressed about the same issues as before we ate.
If you feel like you’ve been “emotionally eating” over the past few weeks, you are not alone. Try to be kind to yourself. And try to be patient – these behaviors won’t change overnight. Often when people eat when stressed or emotional, they blame themselves and feel guilty, leading to more negative emotions and potentially even more harmful eating behaviors. These kinds of behaviors are not easy to change. It takes time to shift them. Below are a few tips for feeling more in control of your eating; however do not hesitate in reaching out to a licensed professional if you feel you are in need of further support and guidance.
- Wait 10 minutes. If you find yourself rushing to the cupboard for a snack, try to stop, take a deep breath and then take a few minutes to think about how you are feeling. Are you really hungry? Or are you feeling anxious? Tired? Bored? If it’s not hunger, try addressing the feeling in a different way. For example, if you’re feeling anxious, maybe calling a friend to talk things through might make you feel better.
- Make a list of activities you enjoy. Think of activities you enjoy doing that can keep you busy but that don’t involve food or eating. Examples could be working in your garden, reading a book, watching a TV show or calling a friend or family member.
- Eat regular and balanced meals. Try to eat meals in order to prevent binge eating when feeling stressed or emotional. This goal is especially important when many of us are working from home and may be grazing on snacks throughout the day rather than eating meals. Meals should ideally be comprised of mostly vegetables and lean protein. Try to limit refined carbohydrates, sweets, fried foods, highly processed or packaged foods and alcohol (but see tip number 7).
- Prioritize sleep. Inadequate sleep can lead to increased hunger and cravings, especially cravings for refined carbohydrates. Work on improving sleep hygiene by turning off the TV, phones and tablets at least an hour before bed. Talk to your doctor if you are having trouble with sleep.
- Try meditation. Meditating for even a few minutes a day can help decrease stress and help you feel more aware of your emotions, which is an important part of addressing emotional eating.
- Get moving. Whether it’s a 10-minute stretching session or an hour long run, physical activity is beneficial in so many ways and is an extremely effective way to reduce stress. If we can find ways to reduce stress in our daily lives, we won’t use food as a temporary stress reliever as much.
- Don’t deprive yourself too much. It is impossible to live without eating any foods that would be considered unhealthy (i.e. cookies, cake, ice cream). Allow yourself to have treats, but in moderation. It can be tricky to find this balance! You may want to consider speaking to a registered dietitian or a physician for further guidance.
For more information, contact HSS Weight Management at 212.606.1570 or click here for their website.
Dr. Caroline Andrew is a medical weight management specialist at HSS. She is a board certified internal medicine physician and fellowship trained in obesity medicine. Using both dietary and behavioral interventions, along with medications for weight loss, she helps patients lose weight and maintain weight loss.