3 Tools for Managing Emotional Eating by Kate Freeman


Emotional eating doesn’t require much introduction. We’ve all been there – feeling so stressed, depressed, anxious or miserable that the only thing that seems capable of lifting our mood is an entire block of chocolate or a large bowl of ice cream. Maybe its multiple glasses of wine that you turn to, or perhaps cheese and crackers are more your style. Whatever the reason, it’s an issue that almost every woman, at some point or another, will struggle with.

The point to which emotional eating affects your health is different for everyone, but in many cases, the desire to cope with negative emotion by reaching for food generally leads to long term weight gain and subsequently sabotages any attempts at losing weight.

If emotional eating is a major challenge for you, then read on. I have 3 tools that you can put into practice straight away to start tackling this issue once and for all.

First of all – if we’re going to overcome emotional eating, it’s important to understand what emotional eating is.

Emotional eating is behaviour. It’s a distraction technique for coping with intense negative emotions. Emotions such as disappointment, fear, depression, hurt, guilt, shame, rejection and anger are often distressful and difficult to bear. We reach for food in an attempt to try and avoid these unwanted feelings.

The good news is that this behaviour is learnt. And any learned behaviour can be unlearnt – this is where the next three tools come into play. We need to replace emotional eating with better ways to cope.

Tool No. 1: Know your thoughts – Manage your emotions before they grow too big.

Behaviours follow feelings and feelings follow thoughts. So at the root of all emotional eaters is a poor thought life, full of negative self-talk. The best defence against emotional eating is preventing our selves from becoming distressed in the first place.

Our negative thoughts can be triggered by the many situations that we find ourselves in. For example:

You’re going out to a special evening with your husband for his work. You’re getting ready and put on your dress. You haven’t worn it for over 12 months and it’s really tight. It that moment you have a thought:

“I hate myself, I’m so fat.” Or “I’m so ugly and gross.” And so on.

The thought starts to grow:

“I’m so hopeless at following diets, I’m never going to be able to lose weight.” Or “I’m so embarrassed about myself, what does my husband even see in me?”

As the thought grows in our mind our mood begins to change. The mind is a powerful thing – we can go from happy and ok to upset and completely depressed all within a matter of minutes, purely due to the thoughts that run through our mind.

You’re now feeling completely miserable and as you wonder past the kitchen you grab a couple of pieces (or more) of chocolate from the fridge. In that small moment, the sweet, delicious taste makes you feel a little better. Only to then leave you feeling worse later on. The cycle repeats.

The very first step to overcoming any kind of negative or destructive behaviour is being aware of your thoughts. Self-awareness is what sets us apart from any other living creature. We can actually look at ourselves, like an outside person looking in and we can think about what we are thinking about.

Once aware of your thoughts, you now need to change them. This is not always easy and takes lots of practice. If your mind easily takes the well-worn trail of self-loathing, you’re going to have to work hard to forge a new trail of positive self-talk. But it’s definitely possible. Let’s go back to the story of the dress.

A couple of weeks later, you’re heading out with your husband again. You’re about to put on another dress. This time, before the dress even goes on, you think:

“It’s ok if this dress is a little tight. I haven’t been looking after myself lately and I’ve put on some weight. But I know that I’ll still look great and I’m going to make a plan to start getting back in control of my lifestyle again.”

You put on the dress, and it’s not as tight as you thought it would be. You smile as your husband tells you that you look great and think:

“I’m going to have a great time tonight and starting from now, I’m going to go out and choose wisely with my food.”

When we’re honest with ourselves, yet positive and uplifting, our resulting moods are better and easier to manage. We could avoid many of the emotional eating episodes we face, if we challenged our thoughts and changed them for the better.

Task: keep a thought journal for the next 3-4 days. Write down every thought you have about yourself whether positive or negative. Record the situation you were in. Now that you know your thoughts, how could you re-write them to make them less distressing?

Tool No. 2: Pay attention to your food choices – Practice mindful eating.

Have you ever sat down and whilst watching TV or reading a book, mindlessly eaten a whole packet of biscuits, chips or other snack? Did you go to take another bite only to realise that it was all gone but you don’t remember eating it all? Mindless eating is often connected with emotional eating because once we find ourselves in a highly distressed or distracted state we simple put food in our mouth without even paying attention, even when we’re not hungry or don’t really want to.

Mindless eating leads to overeating, particularly of foods high in salt, sugar or fat, that taste good and are easy to eat. Many of my clients express to me that when they emotionally or mindlessly eat, they don’t even enjoy the food they’re eating. They’re usually not even hungry and often feel completely powerless to stop it.

One of the most inspirational sayings that I’ve heard from the topic of mindfulness is this:

“Thrive, don’t just survive in your experiences.”                   

We have become so busy. Managing our families, work, households and the other 1000 things that often get piled onto our plate.  Our ability to multi-task everything we do mean that we’re often eating on the run or while we’re doing something else. Smart phones and tablets are a constant distraction as people can connect with us in a bunch of different ways.

We become disconnected from our lives and not present in the moment, particularly when it comes to eating. Research actually shows that people who do other things while eating weigh 18% more than people who just eat alone. Emotional eating is often a bad habit that comes from being on auto-pilot, mindless and not present enough in the moment to choose a different outcome.

Mindful eating is about setting yourself up for success. When you allow yourself to be present, think about your body and really listen to it, you give yourself the opportunity to make a choice and choose the best food for you in that moment, rather than just mindlessly grabbing whatever you can find.

Mindful eating helps you stay in control of your appetite by helping your brain register that you’ve eaten. It also helps you eat less because you take time to savour each mouthful and really enjoy the taste and texture of your food. Eating slower and really thinking about your food means that you’re able to register when you’re feeling full and stop, rather than eating the food just because it’s there.

Task: When you’re eating this week, practice these mindful eating strategies:

  • Sit down to your meal with no distractions and eat it with a knife and fork – don’t eat while driving, at your computer or while on your smart phone. If you’re at work, eat your meal away from your desk.
  • Eat slowly and don’t rush. Chew your food adequately before swallowing. Really enjoy and savour each mouthful.
  • If you start to feel full while eating, stop. You don’t have to finish your plate and eat food just because it’s there. Learning to become an intuitive eater is a very important part of managing a healthy weight.

Tool No. 3: Find other distraction techniques – there are other ways of coping with feeling low.

Sometimes, usually due to circumstances out of your control, you’re going to feel a strong, negative emotion. It’s a part of life.

If you’ve worked on thinking more positive, constructive thoughts about yourself, are practicing mindful eating techniques, but still struggling with emotional eating, then it’s time to look at utilising some other coping strategies.

Everyone is different and you have to find what works for you. Here are some ideas to help you ride out your emotional storm:

  • Take a long, hot shower – relax those muscles
  • Go for walk – clear the head and get some fresh air
  • Do another HIIT session – get those endorphins flowing
  • Keep a journal – get your feelings out onto paper
  • Call a good friend – talking really helps
  • Have a good cry – nothing wrong with feeling sad every now and then and getting it all out
  • Climb a mountain – beautiful views have a way of putting life into perspective
  • Colour in – adult colouring in books are all the rage and great ways to unwind
  • Buy yourself something nice – new clothes or accessories can make you feel great
  • Go for a drive – find some nice scenery and get some alone time
  • Have sex with your partner – nothing like a bit of lovin’
  • Meditate – focus on breathing well and clearing your mind
  • Yoga – stretch out those muscles and practice your balance
  • Find a hobby – we need to have an outlet that we enjoy doing
  • Go play with the kids – make believe, games and laughter, there is no better medicine

**Kate is my consulting Nutritionist and the Managing Director of the Healthy Eating Hub  in Canberra – PLEASE click here to follow her on Facebook – she is one amazing lady who is truly passionate about her work and I am so lucky to have her as part of my team!**