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Are You an Emotional Eater? Tips to Cope With the Cravings

In our society food is a part of almost every activity: watching TV, sports events, weddings, funerals, parties, holidays, business meetings, play dates, basically any social get together has become an excuse to wheel out the food.

Emotional eating happens any time you eat not because you are physically hungry but because you have feelings of boredom, depression, loneliness, fear, anger or frustration. Eating takes your mind off the feelings. Eating comforts you. Eating in response to emotions and not hunger can result in overeating, unwanted weight gain, health problems and even greater stress. Be aware of what triggers your eating, and if you reach for food when stressed, consider the following:

  • Keep a food diary. In your diary record data under these column headings: time, place, food eaten, amount, and your feelings. Identifying any stress, negative thoughts or emotions you're having at the time will help you determine why you are eating.
  • Identify patterns of emotional eating. Many people find that overeating tends to occur at specific times and in specific places. For instance, you may overeat in front of the TV in the evening after a stressful day.
  • Plan alternatives and change routines. Instead of sitting down in front of the TV with a bag of chips after a stressful day you could take a walk, take a long bath, call a friend, write in a journal, or read a book. Do something that removes you from the situation that results in overeating.
  • Remove tempting foods. Don't buy the foods you crave when stressed! Having them in your house or desk is a disaster waiting to happen. If you really want to watch a favorite TV show in the evening, have nutritious low-calorie foods on hand. Better yet, find something to occupy your hands while you watch: give yourself a manicure, iron clothes or exercise.
  • Know when and how to give in. It's all right to occasionally give in to cravings. When you really do want to eat chips, buy a single serving instead of a whole bag, or take a small portion out of the bag, put in a small cup, and put the bag away before you eat.
  • When you eat, focus on the task at hand. Do not watch TV or read. Sit down at the table and leave when you are finished. Consciously eat slowly to give your stomach time to tell your brain when it's full. If you're still hungry after finishing your meal, wait 20 minutes before having a second helping or dessert.
  • Plan nutritious meals and snacks. If you wait until you are ravenous, you're more likely to reach for the wrong foods and to overeat. You may also find yourself nibbling all the way through meal preparation.
  • Reward yourself when you eat in a healthy way. Buy yourself a novel or a new journal, go see a movie or get a massage. Rewarding yourself will increase the likelihood that you will maintain your new healthy habits.
  • Make "The Healthy Refrigerator," otherwise known as you can't eat the wrong food if you don't stock it. One of the easiest ways to ensure healthier eating is to periodically clean out the refrigerator and get rid of all the junk... the junk food, that is.

Making dietary changes, and especially those centered on emotional eating, is tough. Changing eating habits that have been ingrained for years takes time. Take it one meal and one day at a time. You will be successful in combating overweight, obesity, and stress when you combine both diet and exercise. Treat the whole you and you will feel better about yourself.

Adapted from The Stress Owner's Manual: Meaning, Balance & Health in Your Life (2nd Ed.), by Ed Boenisch, Ph.D., and C. Michele Haney, Ph.D. Available at online and local bookstores or directly from Impact Publishers, PO Box 6016, Atascadero, CA 93423-6016, by phone at 1-800-246-7228, or

Page last modified or reviewed by athealth on January 29, 2014