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How Do You Change Emotional Eating?

April 2015

Karen Ensle Ed.D., RDN, FAND, CFCS
Family & Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

It's been a bad day at home or work and you reach for a high calorie food to eat. Emotional eating is a habit, and like any habit, can be broken. It may be difficult, especially if you've been doing it for a long time, but it is possible. Below are nine tips to help you and your family curb emotional eating:

  1. Set up a Healthy Home Environment. If there are no junk foods in the house, you can't binge on them. Instead, keep unprocessed, low-calorie, low-fat foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, hummus, and unbuttered popcorn available for munching.
  2. Be a Good Role Model for Healthy Eating. Kids learn by watching adults, so parents need to create a healthier food environment. Before going grocery shopping, heading to a restaurant, or calling for a pizza delivery, take a breather, go for a walk, and wait until your emotions are in check.
  3. Identify Triggers That Cause Emotional Eating. The next time you reach for comfort food, ask yourself, "Why do I want this cookie? Am I really hungry?" If not, try to identify what emotions you are feeling. Are you stressed, angry, bored, scared, sad, or lonely? Keep a food diary; a written record of what, how much, and when you eat may help you to see binge eating patterns or connections between mood and food.
  4. Talk With Your Overweight Children. Find out what's going on in their personal lives. Ask about school, friends, and general attitudes. Do they have a positive or negative view about the way life is going? Being aware of the underlying social and emotional issues will help you guide them to make better lifestyle choices.
  5. Get Help When Needed. "Aha" moments can create the path for change. If you're having trouble controlling your emotional eating, don't be afraid to seek the help of a mental health professional. Professional counseling or psychotherapy can help adults or older youth figure out what's motivating them to overeat or choose unhealthy foods. Counseling can also help those with eating disorders.
  6. Find Satisfying Alternatives. Once you figure out why food makes you feel better, you can come up with alternative behaviors that can help you cope with emotional eating. If you find yourself frustrated because you have no control over circumstances, try going for a walk. If you have been hurt by a co-worker's mean comments, get to an exercise class and get rid of the emotional energy and then talk it out with the co-worker.
  7. Think Moderation. Denying yourself of all treats can lead to cravings and binge eating. Instead, allow yourself to have your favorite foods occasionally and in smaller portions. Limit the amount of chips by putting a few in a small bowl, instead of mindlessly eating them out of the bag.
  8. Keep the Emphasis on Fun and Feeling Good. Healthy habits are easier to adopt when people are in a positive mood.
  9. Celebrate Success. Focus on the positive changes you are making, one small step at a time. You'll get better results with positive encouragement rather than harsh criticism. Movement will sometimes go backward, so acknowledge it when it goes in the opposite direction and use the experience to help with future plans.