Expert tips to curb emotional eating
We look at what the pros do when they find themselves stress eating.
Have you ever had such an emotionally draining day that your first thought when you get home is to work your way through copious amounts of your favourite sweet food? We’ve all been there.
Picture a rom-com or any film with that typical break-up scene. What do you see? The main character wrapped in a blanket, sobbing into a tub of ice cream?
Why is it that we associate our emotions with food, and how can we make sure that we aren’t overindulging for the sake of it?
Our relationship with food starts from a young age - much like our habits . We may associate different foods with happiness, such as the association of ice cream and cake with a childhood birthday party. In some cases, parents may use food as a reward, however more recent studies have shown that using food as a reward can be associated with future negative relationships with food.
These past experiences, on top of the cortisol that we release when stressed (a hormone that makes us crave sugary foods ), mean that over the years, we start to reward our bodies with foods that we believe make us feel better emotionally.
So how do we reverse years of emotional eating?
How to curb emotional/stress eating
1. Take a note of your eating patterns
Eating patterns are the general times you eat. Do you eat three big meals a day or do you eat little and often? Taking note of your eating patterns can help you to see if there are times of the day when you may be eating unnecessarily. You may find you tend to snack in the evening out of boredom or to help tackle a stressful day – similar to having a glass of wine in the evening.
The best way to tackle boredom eating is by distinguishing your emotional hunger vs. your true hunger.
Emotional hunger vs. true hunger
What’s the difference between emotional hunger and true hunger? Some of the main differences include how quickly you feel hungry and how you feel after you’ve eaten .
|Emotional hunger||Physical hunger|
|Sudden feelings of hunger||Feelings of hunger come on gradually|
|Crave specific foods||Willing to eat any food|
|Need to eat even though you feel full||Stop eating when feeling full|
|Feelings of guilt or shame after eating||No negative feelings after eating|
Once you are aware of your eating patterns and the signs of emotional hunger, the next step is to practise mindful eating.
2. Practise mindful eating
Mindfulness, as a practice, has become more popular over recent years. Mindfulness is being aware and present in everything that you do. And in that respect, mindful eating is the act of being fully present when eating . This may sound simple, but how many times have you sat in front of your laptop, TV, or phone when eating?
How to eat mindfully
- Pay attention to every step – this includes choosing and preparing all food.
- Remove any distractions that may take away from the process of eating – however, don’t feel like you can’t sit with others, as this can improve mealtimes.
- Use your senses when eating – enjoy every taste (sometimes closing your eyes can heighten other senses such as taste and smell).
- Chew your food – slowing down and using the 20, 20, 20 method when eating can help you concentrate fully on your food. Chew your food for 20 seconds, put your utensils down for at least 20 seconds before having another mouthful, and take 20 minutes to eat your food.
3. Plan your meals
Planning your meals can be a part of mindful eating and help you save time. If time is your enemy, then meal planning and batch cooking can help you curb your emotional eating habits as you are less likely to snack and more likely to eat a decent meal.
Meal planning may seem overwhelming and scary, but after a few weeks, you’ll soon get the hang of it. Meal planning and online shopping can make it much easier if you are busy.
If you are struggling for ideas, the NHS and most supermarkets have sections on their websites full of meal plans and ideas.
4. Find emotional ways to deal with emotional problems
With any emotional problems, it’s best to tackle all thoughts externally with logical reasoning. If you are feeling sad and want to reach for the ice cream, it’s time to have a word with yourself and ask yourself questions like; do I want this ice cream? Am I hungry? Am I eating just because I’m stressed or emotional? If the answer is yes, then it’s time to tell yourself no.
It's not all about willpower, either. When starting, you are breaking a habit that has been ingrained since the early stages of your life. And through that time, you may not have been taught how to deal with your emotions.
How to deal with your emotions
- Stress – if you are feeling stressed, meditating or exercising can help. You can read more tips on how to deal with stress in our blog: ten top ways to de-stress.
- Sadness – do something that makes you happy, like going out with a friend or watching a happy film.
- Boredom – find something to do with your hands. This will stop you from reaching for food. Take up a new hobby or read a good book.
If you are struggling with your emotions or experiencing mood swings that feel new to you, we would recommend speaking to your GP. Or you could try a comprehensive health check, such as our Advanced Well Woman Blood Test or Advanced Well Man Blood Test, to rule out any medical reasons for low mood or mood swings.
5. Avoid labelling foods as good or bad
Do you know the phrase that you can have too much of a good thing? If you’re overindulging in any food, including fruit , it can have negative effects.
Over the years, we have heard foods being labelled as good or bad. But this can actually add to anxiety around food. Though foods such as ultra-processed foods have been proven to harm the body, you don’t necessarily have to cut them out completely. It’s all about moderation.
Labelling foods good and bad can sometimes tempt you further to eat the bad foods to give your body that comfort craving it seeks. However, if it’s not labelled as bad or naughty food, you may be less inclined (it’s all to do with feeding your inner chimp).
So, try asking yourself if you are hungry or need to eat rather than asking whether you should eat that specific item.
How do you stop emotional eating?
Emotional eating is a habit learned over many years, which can make it difficult to stop. But just because Bridget Jones reaches for the ice cream after a hard day, doesn’t mean you have to.
The key to curbing a habit like emotional or stress eating lies in taking yourself off autopilot. So, next time you’re heading for the treat cupboard, ask yourself: is this really what I need right now, or would a moment’s reflection serve me better?
Diet and Lifestyle Blood Test
Are you interested to know how your diet is impacting your health? Our Diet and Lifestyle Blood Test can help. With tests for your liver and kidney function, cholesterol, diabetes, B vitamins, and much more, this test can act as a nudge in the right direction to start making changes that can positively impact your health and track the results over time. Those changes could be cutting down on sugar and fatty foods to improve your cholesterol and diabetes risk; reducing alcohol consumption to improve your liver health or taking a supplement to top-up vitamin D levels in winter.
- Scaglioni, S., De Cosmi, V., Ciappolino, V., Parazzini, F., Brambilla, P. and Agostoni, C., 2018. Factors Influencing Children’s Eating Behaviours. Nutrients, 10(6), p.706.
- Science in the News. 2022. Ask the Brain: Why Do We Crave Sugar When We're Stressed? - Science in the News. [online] Available at: <https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/ask-the-brain-why-do-we-crave-sugar-when-were-stressed/> [Accessed 16 September 2022].
- MAYOCLINIC. 2022. Feeding your feelings. [online] Available at: <https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/feeding-your-feelings> [Accessed 16 September 2022].
- Nelson, J., 2017. Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. Diabetes Spectrum, 30(3), pp.171-174.
- Sharma, S., Chung, H., Kim, H. and Hong, S., 2016. Paradoxical Effects of Fruit on Obesity. Nutrients, 8(10), p.633.
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