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  • Writer's pictureJim

Is Emotional Eating Holding You Back?

Most nights, it’s the same pattern. I come home from Strength for Life, check the mail, make something for dinner and sit down for the evening. I might do a little work and watch some television and then it happens. Just like clockwork, without even thinking of it, I am back in the kitchen grabbing a snack. Before I know it, I am sitting in front of the TV munching mindlessly.

I know that I am not really hungry and the snack, (or two, or three), is not needed but I continue to eat anyway. Late night eating for me is just a habit that does not support my fitness or nutrition and needs to go.

Many of us eat when we are bored, stressed, sad, lonely, have relationship conflicts, or as a way to deal with unpleasant emotions or just out of habit.

That is bad enough, but what is even worse is that the food we eat does not make us feel better. As a matter of fact, we often feel guilty for overeating. We feel bad, we eat. We feel guilty, we eat again. We may have filled our stomachs, but we have not filled the emotional need that caused us to reach for food in the first place.

Emotional hunger is different from physical hunger. Emotional hunger is often impulsive. There is an urgency to eat something, often less healthy, comfort foods. Emotional hunger is not satisfying and is often done thoughtlessly as though we were on automatic pilot. We often feel regret or guilt after a bout of emotional eating.

Stress, boredom, loneliness, trying to bury our emotions, conflicts with relationships, fatigue, being unhappy with the way we look, health or financial issues, social situations, going out with friends can trigger emotional eating. Emotional eating can soon become an unwanted habit.

There is good news. We can change our relationship with eating and change the emotional habits that derail our health, weight and fitness.

The trick is to recognize and understand our triggers, deal with the emotions that cause us to eat and find alternate ways to deal with our triggers. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Knowing what to do and finding ways to stop emotional eating can be a difficult process.

Here are six practical tips to curb your emotional eating habits.

1. Eat only when you are hungry

This seems like a no-brainer, but we often eat for many other reasons than to nourish the body. Understanding when we are truly hungry can help control our emotional eating.

2. Acknowledge triggers and track your cravings

When you have a craving mark it down in a journal. Ask yourself; “What am I feeling and why?” Think about how you can satisfy your craving without resorting to food.

3. Hit the Pause Button

Take a moment when you feel a craving coming on to evaluate what you are feeling. Are you really hungry or is the craving due to some other cause.

What are you feeling at this moment? Is it related to your craving? Ask yourself: What do I really want? Do I really need food, or something else?

Wait for a few minutes before giving in to the craving. Often delaying action is enough to get your brain out of the craving mode. Allow yourself to feel whatever emotion you are having.

If you are craving food because you are trying to bury or suppress your feelings, allow yourself to feel angry, sad, lonely, bored, or stressed. Giving yourself permission to feel may not be easy but can lead to a greater self-awareness about what you really need and want. It is better to deal with your feelings than to bury them down with food.

4. Find an alternate activity

What other actions can you take to satisfy the craving? Is there an alternate activity, like walking, that could replace the craving? Would a small portion of the food you are craving satisfy the urge to eat more?

5. Have a plan to deal with your triggers

You can also come up with a plan to deal with the feeling that triggered your craving. If being tired triggered the craving, you might plan to go to bed earlier. If boredom triggers your craving plan an activity like walking, reading a good book or complete a Soduko puzzle next time the craving hits. Call a friend or write a note to someone you care about when you are feeling lonely. When you are anxious or stressed, find a way to release some energy like doing a few pushups, or jumping jacks.

6. Practice mindful eating

Eating mindfully is like pressing the pause button on your television remote control. The pause gives you a moment to make a deliberate decision between your trigger and your action.

Follow these steps to cut down on your stress eating.

The Challenge:

For the next 30 days:

Level 1: When you feel a craving to eat, write down the event or emotion that triggers your craving.


Take a timeout of a few minutes every time you feel a craving to eat. Hit the pause button.

Level 2: When you have a craving, instead of heading to the refrigerator, get up and do an activity like walking up and down the stairs, doing laundry or a crossword puzzle.

Level 3: Take time to write down a plan to deal with your triggers. Track each time you have a craving and the alternate activity you used to avoid or derail the craving.


Write down the emotion you are feeling when you have a craving and allow yourself to feel that emotion. Write down how you can deal with that emotion in the future.

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