How often have you turned to food in times of uncomfortable, unpleasant, emotion?
You’re not alone.
Many of us find ourselves in a pattern of turning to food when we experience emotions such as these.
We might do this to distract ourselves.
We might do this to numb ourselves.
We might do this to comfort ourselves.
You probably already know, however, that the relief brought by food is only temporary.
The distraction, numbness, or comfort is fleeting, and after we’re through we’re often stuck with different, but equally unpleasant emotions.
This isn’t a pattern against which we’re powerless, despite how little hope we might have that we can break free.
In this post, we’ll discuss five steps you can take to identify and put an end to emotional eating.
This post builds upon a previous post of mine, titled “6 steps to identify what’s causing your cravings (and what to do about it)”.
If you’re not sure if you’re an emotional eater, or if you’d like some additional tools you might be able to use to take control of your eating habits, you might give it a read.
There’s a bit overlap between these two posts, and both might serve you well.
Now let’s look at five steps you can take to stop emotional eating.
1) Cultivate mindfulness.
The better in tune you are with your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, the better equipped you’ll be to control how you respond to them.
This is where cultivating mindfulness – the ability to identify and explore your thoughts, emotions, and circumstances without judgment or reaction – will be a great asset.
The good news is if you’ve recognized that you’ve developed a pattern of emotional eating, you’re already demonstrating at least some mindfulness already.
That is, you’ve already developed a level of self-awareness sufficient to identify your problem in the first place.
Developing this skill further will strengthen your ability to manage how you respond to your emotions, empowering you to pursue options other than food (which we’ll get to in a bit).
While there are many ways to cultivate mindfulness, practicing meditation is one of the simplest and most effective.
If you’d like to learn more about meditation and how to get started, check out this post I wrote all about it:
2) Create space.
Next, you’ll want to create space between the emotions you’re experiencing and the moment you turn to food to manage them.
Whenever you feel the urge to turn to food to avoid facing an unpleasant emotion, take a deep breath, acknowledge what’s going on without judgement, and work to delay acting on your impulses.
Even if you’re only able to delay turning to food by one second from when you experiencing whatever emotion it is that you’re facing, you’re making progress.
The next second won’t be as hard, and each second after that will be even easier.
Over time, you might find that the sense of urgency wanes as you build the skill of letting the emotion just “be”.
Another step you might consider taking to create space is physically distancing yourself from the foods to which you most often turn.
We often turn to specific foods – usually treats, desserts, or snacks – for managing our emotions.
The rich, intense flavors and textures of such foods serve to distract us from whatever we’re experiencing in ways that other foods might not.
These effects might not only be the product of these foods’ inherent qualities, but from conditioning over years of associating certain foods with certain emotions.
Our parents might have always given us ice cream when we were upset, or taken us to certain restaurants to celebrate special occasions.
Such patterns might have conditioned us such that we return to such patterns for managing similar emotions as adults.
What brought us comfort as children might be where turn for comfort as adults.
Whatever your reasons for your food of choice, shaping your environment to limit access to them might be worth considering.
These associations and patterns can be tremendously difficult to break, and making acting out these patterns more challenging is one strategy we might use to break them.
Inconvenience and avoidance, however, might not be the most effective long-term solution, as simply ignoring a problem doesn’t necessarily make it go away.
As I’ve written before, you can’t avoid temptation forever.
In the short-term, though, steps such as these might help you to minimize the impact emotional eating has on your health and fitness goals.
Next, you’ll want to put that space you’ve created – physically or otherwise – to use.
3) Experience your emotions.
The space created by distancing yourself from the distraction of food allows you to experience these emotions head on.
To receive their message.
To explore just what it is that they are trying to tell you.
Emotions aren’t useless.
Their purpose is to tell us what in our life is and is not in alignment with our values, and goals.
They’re here to signal to us that something isn’t right.
That something needs to change.
It’s not until we have this information that we can start working on the root cause of the emotion, rather than the symptom of eating.
Explore whatever you’re experiencing, free from judgement.
What are you feeling?
What are you thinking?
What are the circumstances surrounding this feeling?
Where are you?
What are you doing?
Who are you with?
Keeping a food journal –a record of what you eat as well as what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling before and after eating – is a worthy tool to help in this process.
This can be the most challenging and uncomfortable step in the process of addressing emotional eating.
As uncomfortable or unpleasant as an emotion may be, though, sometimes the only way through it is through it.
Emotions – the good and the bad – are part of the human experience.
You might benefit from experiencing, exploring, and embracing what yours are trying to tell you.
4) Do what you can.
Ask yourself what you can do about the emotions you’re experiencing.
Can you do anything about it?
Many emotions are rooted in circumstance that are often within our control.
Take stress, for example.
What’s at the root of it?
Is it your job?
Is it your finances?
Is it your relationships?
What steps can you take right now to start working towards a solution?
If it’s loneliness, what might you do to foster meaningful relationships?
What interests – clubs, religious organizations, interest groups, or meetups – might you pursue to connect you with like-minded individuals?
Hell, even going to a coffee shop or a bar might be an option, even if only to be around other people without speaking with any of them.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or burnt out, what can you do to ease your collective burden?
If you’re feeling like a failure, what’s one small thing you can do collect a small “win”?
If you find certain places or people to be associated with the feelings driving your emotional eating, how might you start distancing yourself from them?
Other emotions might simply take time.
Heartbreak or mourning after somebody exits our life, for example, are often completely out of our control.
That said, even if there’s nothing you can do about the circumstance surrounding such feelings, food is not the only tool at your disposal.
When working through emotions such as these, explore other options for managing them.
Can you seek out the support of friends or family?
Can you fill the void left by your loss with meaningful activities like hobbies or volunteering?
Can you direct that emotional energy towards a worthy cause?
Would you benefit from the help of a professional – counseling or therapy, for example?
If so, there’s no shame in that.
We’re not meant to go through life on our own, and if you need help, seek it out.
These are only examples of emotions commonly associated with uncontrollable eating and potential steps you might take to address them at their roots.
The key takeaway is that emotions are signals that something in our lives is out of alignment, and that it’s on us to figure out what to do about it.
Explore your options.
Do what you can with what you have.
5) Hang in there.
This final point isn’t some intended as some blanket encouragement to just “deal with it”.
Rather, it’s a reminder that you are not perfect, emotions and all, and that’s totally okay.
Your emotions are valid.
Your methods for dealing with them – even if through food – are valid.
Nothing feel and nothing you eat for any reason is a reflection on you as a human being.
You’re fully capable, however, of making a change.
You’re fully capable of creating the life that you deserve.
You’re worthy of nothing but the best life – complete with all the messy, uncomfortable, unpleasant emotions that come along with it.
If you’re dealing with these emotions through food and would like to stop, consider taking the steps listed above.
You might also consider also checking out some of the steps in the post about cravings that I mentioned above (you can find it here).
Whatever you do, don’t quit.
You won’t nail this right off the bat.
You might never nail this.
Continue to move forward.
Continue to pick yourself up.
Continue to dust yourself off.
Continue to pat yourself on the back every step of the way.
This will not be easy.
This will take time.
This will take effort.
You’re worth it.
You’ve got this.