I’ve received a number of questions revolving around emotional eating in the past couple of months, including a few detailed responses to various members of my newsletter (that I sincerely hope helped!).
Whenever I notice a trend of emails or asks to answer on Quora, I generally take note.
Truth be told, emotional eating is a very tricky subject for any trainer and in many cases I would have in the past simply encouraged people to read the Beck Diet Solution or find a counsellor in their area.
However since writing this blog, I’ve become much more fluent in addressing this type of thing and it’s mostly not what you’d expect.
Emotional eating has become a bit of a vogue term.
Broadly it used to be used to identify with eating that was triggered by strong emotional discourse, often depression.
It’s even wrongly, the butt of many a joke (did you see the image I found?).
However, emotional eating at it’s core, is really just a term to describe any time emotions are a trigger for eating.
That’s not to downplay it’s seriousness when done chronically, but rather to highlight that almost everyone suffers from the odd bout of emotional eating, and it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life of it.
By Friday night, after a long week, I kinda want a glass of red wine too…
Human beings are prone to emotional upswings and downswings and food is comforting to a reasonable extent, if only for a moment.
Table of Contents
You’re engaging in emotional eating if:
- You eat when you’re bored (I’d say the #1 reason people overeat is the emotional boredom trap)
- You’re stressed (had a bad day at work, are struggling with a relationship, etc…)
- You’re sad
- You’re frustrated or angry
- You could even be happy, think about how much you eat at social gatherings!
It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re depressed, but if you worry you might be, you should definitely seek out some help and not the kind you get from a fitness blog.
There is no shame in working with a counsellor or therapist.
If you’re like the rest of us and you find yourself indulging in just a little much chocolate (dark for me) after an entire day of a job you hate, chances are there are actually a few easy ways you can beat the emotional eating blues so it doesn’t become a daily ritual.
Stop for a moment. Ask yourself, are you hungry because you’re hungry or are you hungry because you’re stressed?
If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll often find that you can learn to identify real hunger vs stress.
A good mindfulness question to consider, you want to learn to be more in the moment and less reflective on the day.
Mindful eating is a bit of a buzz word that’s been difficult to define, but it basically means the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment of eating.
People often have this false assumption that a strong willed person or a strong willed dieter, one who is more successful, can clear their mind of any temptation or overpower negative thoughts/feelings.
That’s why people often tell you if only they have more willpower!
No. It’s not really a matter of willpower.
In fact there is a clear indication that people who rely too much on willpower fare much worse than people who understand the way their mind works.
Your thinking doesn’t necessarily control you. Thoughts will come and go. Emotions will come and go.
The difficult mindset skill to learn is to stop judging or justifying the behavior, don’t make excuses, or try to put it out of your mind.
It’s really not about resisting the craving, as many people believe.
It doesn’t actually work like this.
It’s more like sitting on a street corner watching traffic go by. The thought cars come and go.
One of the biggest skills you can learn in any mindfulness practice or ‘meditation’ practice, is that thoughts come and go, the more you try to resist, the worse you actually make it.
And there is actually a lot of research behind this too, so I’m not just spewing some ‘buddist-hippie-B.S.’ either.
When you try to suppress thoughts and emotions you’re more likely to think about them even more.
So consciously trying to resist ice cream or chocolate, or whatever your vice may be, HAS THE OPPOSITE EFFECT!
That’s why I don’t encourage people to restrict foods in their diet, but rather I’d like to them to focus on what they should eat more of.
It’s really about accepting what you eat, and more importantly how you think about what you’re eating.
The more you worry, the more you train your brain to worry.
When you accept that you’re thinking something, and that thinking is something your brain simply does and you have no control over it, thoughts will leave your consciousness faster than you might think.
You want to give your low mindset the opportunity to return to a neutral, peaceful or calm state.
The mind always wants to default back to an optimal state of clarity.
It can’t do that if you’re trying to ignore, or push away thoughts and emotions.
Accept that you are currently having an emotional moment, leading to a craving and like the rest of your thoughts throughout the course of a day this too will pass.
This is easier if nothing is easily accessible in your immediate environment to satisfy that craving too.
This is actually a big component of the Fitnack Program.
Identify Possible Triggers
The first thing you can do is a big one and it takes a lot of deliberate practice to help it along.
Mindfulness and meditation are two extremely promising methods for dealing with emotional eating.
The reason people who rely too much on willpower are less successful is because self-control is like a muscle and it’s an exhaustible resource for you to lose each and every day.
You’ve only got so much.
The easy way to combat willpower and make it less important is to start controlling your environment and change your habits.
Habits run on autopilot (unconsciously) when fully ingrained, so they require exactly zero willpower to execute.
Your environment will often trigger habits, and right now, more than likely the ones you don’t want.
When you combine lower amounts of willpower (oftenlater in the day) with poor environmental cues it adds up to emotional eating.
Rather than relying solely on willpower, it helps to identify the trigger or triggers (could be a time, place, a recurring problem, area of the home, etc…) that help you satisfy emotional eating cravings.
Is it a negative relationship?
Is it a time of day?
What time of day do you get sugar cravings?
More often than not people have them later in the day, or if they don’t sleep well…
How often per week?
At what point in the week?
Is there an event that you can associate with the trigger? A child crying? A stressful work experience? An aggravating experience at home?
Is there any food around the house or at work, that you see, that could provide a trigger?
Signage or marketing anywhere?
Do you notice that you eat out of anger? or out of sadness/depression? Or do you crave food because you feel stressed?
As much as you’d like to believe it’s solely your emotions, and improving your emotional intelligence can go a long way, often times emotional eating is triggered by your environment.
Sometimes it helps to take a quick journal every 15 minutes to figure this out. If you have a smartphone, this could be as easy as setting an alarm every fifteen minutes and then dictating to your phone what you’re doing in that moment.
The key is to raise your awareness of your environment.
Rework Your Environment
Like I said, relying on willpower will often come up short at some point.
So if it’s an environmental cue (and it usually is, when you combine stress with something you see or are around each day), then you need to start thinking about ways to reduce and/or eliminate your exposure.
How can you remove the trigger or cue?
If there is sugar in the house, you’re likely to eat it.
Especially if it’s in plain site.
If you leave candy out for the kids, you really shouldn’t be surprised when you’re the one eating it at midnight after a long day of work.
It you make it harder to access, you’re less likely to eat it.
It will also give you time for the emotionally triggered urge to pass.
If there is sugar at work, you’re likely to eat it.
Make your vice really inaccessible and you’re less likely to go to the trouble of tracking it down and eating it.
Take a moment to go through your refrigerator, freezer and pantry; Do you have any of the following?
- Boxed/packaged carbohydrates like crackers, chips, popcorns?
- Packaged pastries or other sugar laden high fat snacks like donuts, pop tarts, etc…?
- Packaged sweets like cookies, candy bars, chocolate?
- Packaged foods like frozen french fries, pastries, or quick pizza stuff?
Do any of those things match a food or foods that you often reach for when you’re frustrated, angry, sad or stressed?
If they are, can you donate them to goodwill?
Or even throw them out?
I know. I know. That’s a waste.
You’ve already paid for it though, so that money is already gone.
You can ingest it and take yourself incrementally closer to the opposite of your desired objective.
Or you can throw it out, give it away and let the craving be someone else’s problem.
Create a Distraction
There is a famous study, called the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.
It looked essentially a willpower, specifically the ability to delay gratification and found a big correlation between that ability and ‘success.’
In follow ups, they discovered that distraction was one of the main methods people used to successfully delay the gratification of consuming the marshmallow.
When they used mentors within the study, distraction was one of the main tools those mentors taught their younger counterparts.
If mindfulness fails, and it might when you’re new to practicing it, distraction can be a useful skill.
Do not try to create a distraction in the form of TV, Computer, or entertainment while eating.
That’s the wrong kind of distraction, in fact, they are all more likely to make you eat more.
They are also relatively mindless, meaning they do not require much of your conscious attention.
You want to choose a distraction that requires a lot of your conscious attention.
What I mean is that rather than focus on the craving, is there something you can engage in that will distract you from the temptation in the short term?
Enough of something that the thought of the temptation naturally drifts from your consciousness.
As it will do if you give it enough time.
Maybe that means, reading to one of your kids? Holding them? Talking to a spouse or friend? Reading a book?
Solving a puzzle? Playing a game? Meditation or exercise?
Something that takes you away from the possible craving, requires your attention and removes you from the food situation.
If you haven’t quite learned how to identify your triggers yet and avoid them, then the skill of distraction might become your best friend.
It helps to make the distraction the same, so that every time you deal with a trigger, you have something that you can automatically do to distract yourself from that craving.
Use a Substitution
Craving sugar? Is there something that would be a better choice overall that still satisfies your sweet tooth?
If you’re hungry and having difficulty with sugar craving, is there something that might satisfy that craving while being a little bit better or even a lot better for you in the long run?
I know people have their views about artificial sweeteners but stevia might be the lesser of two evils given your options.
For instance, could you keep some frozen or fresh fruit in the house and would eating it, provide at least a little bit of sugary satisfaction?
Again, until such time that the temptation or craving leaves your consciousness.
Don’t focus on the craving still (never), but is there something else you could eat that would be reasonably satisfying?
I like protein smoothies personally because I have a thing for chocolate.
For a while, I spent some time learning to love dark chocolate, which I hated as a kid, but is significantly better than the milk chocolate crap found in most convenience stores.
Particularly the higher percentage of cocoa mass and fiber content you go…
It started with 60% cocoa. Then 70% and most recently I’m more likely to opt for 80% and higher…
It satisfied the craving while providing considerably better nutrition overall.
It was also something I could incrementally improve.
Lately however, I’ll often make protein and natural peanut butter smoothies to curb that craving.
The protein and fat is satiating, leaving me full for a while, so I’m less likely to overeat or continue looking to eat something else.
The chocolate is still tasty as well, and although I use a little milk, there is very little if any added sugar in this approach (tastes a little like a bittersweet reese peanut butter cup — which I now find too sweet typically anyway).
You might have your reservations about this strategy but I can assure you that it works well as as skill.
As your tastes change, and they will, you can make your option just a tiny bitter better and kaizen the shit out of it.
Maybe that means starting with dried fruit, to eliminate your sour kid addiction.
Then maybe you move into some frozen berries.
Then you progress a fruit protein smoothie?
Vanilla protein, berries, some flax, a splash of fruit juice?
Less sugar, more satiating, and you get some protein and some healthy fats.
Think of it as a process. Even if you find something that is only moderately better than what you’re going for, you’re making progress.
More fiber? Awesome, probably a better option.
Less sugar? Awesome, probably a better option for the time being.
More protein? Probably more satiating, so you’re less likely to overeat it.
Better source of fats? Less Omega-6’s oils and more Omega-3’s? Sounds like an improvement to me…
Try dark chocolate instead of milk, it could be that little to start.
Take baby steps if you need to.
Identify Any Possible Limiting Factors You Can Fix
In other instances there may be an influencing factor that you can lessen with a little work.
Beyond just ‘skills’ you can set yourself up for success by adopting good life practices, in spite of obstacles.
Because honestly, erey’body got problms and ain’t nobody got time for dat!
That’s not a typo…
For example sleeping less than 7 hours for most people, lowers that battery reserve I was talking about.
The less you sleep, the more likely you are to give into temptation.
More than half the adult population in North America doesn’t get 7-9 hours sleep.
I realize it’s because you have young kids. I know you’ve you bills to pay and clients to help.
I know working 80 hours a week will pay off in other ways, but if you can’t get 7-9 hours of shut eye, are you as effective at all of those things as you might think?
If you can’t get 7-9, how can you make up the difference?
Is there a way? Could you nap? Could you go to bed earlier? Could your get someone else involved to help?
Lack of sleep kills willpower and leads to overeating by itself…
What else could you do that you don’t do enough of now?
Many people view the logical path of exercise as calorie output, but exercise also boosts mental energy and clarity.
Not only does burn excess energy off, it can recharge your energy batteries and improve willpower!
Could you exercise during the day?
Even if it’s only 5 minutes of running on the spot?
Yoga/Stretching and other such physical practices often do the same as well.
Could you do a few poses or a few stretches during the day?
Could you do some bodyweight squats or pushups or something else?
Meditation does the same.
I really like the app ‘Headspace‘ as it teaches really good mindfulness practices, without all the ‘foo-foo-spiritual-stuff’ associated with meditation for some strange reason.
Meditation doesn’t have to mean religious FYI.
It’s actually a science based approach, with guided meditation, it’s only a few dollars a month and I like that.
They have a free Take 10 program that is a good introduction to good mindfulness practices.
Could you find 10 minutes a day to meditate?
What about possible things you lack?
If you’re not adequately hydrated, you are more likely to feel stressed and easily swayed too.
Make sure you’re getting probably a minimum of 2 liters (8-9 eight ounce glasses) of water and or fluids every day.
5-6 of those glasses should generally just be water.
If you exercise regularly, or more than regularly, you may need more.
Have 2 glasses with every meal and you should be good form a water perspective, but keeping a water bottle with you might work better.
Caffeine can also actually be useful, if your consumption is moderate (2 cups of coffee or 3 cups of tea a day or so or less), but can become problematic if you’re drinking too much.
The more you come to rely on it, the weaker your willpower muscle gets.
So could you reduce consumption if you consume too much right now?
Or could you start drinking some green tea a couple times a day if you don’t?
Or are you really sensitive to caffeine and some people are?
Maybe it needs to be avoided entirely as some people don’t break it down well (kind of like lactose).
Alcohol consumption obviously kills willpower too? How often do you drink?
There could be a food you’re eating or not eating that makes you feel lethargic?
Dairy, too much sugar, too many omega-6 oils (margarine, corn oil, canola oil, etc…), not enough omega-3, protein or vitamins?
You could try removing something (though it’s been my experience that you’ll often get better results trying to introduce something that will displace something else you don’t want or need…) with an approach like the elimination diet.
Often times taking a multi-vitamin and fish oil can be useful for boosting energy.
Could you do that? How confident are you that you could?
And then slowly learning to eat more fish/flax/algae, vegetables and other helpful foods, will gradually displace problematic foods.
Develop a One Track Mind
Change your diet one thing at a time, not all at once.
In hospitals, there is a concept called Triage.
Basically if you have a head injury and I have a cut on my finger, you’ll be seen first, even if you came in after me, because your injury is most likely worse and needs more immediate attention.
Triage basically means, prioritise.
So if you can, try to identify the one thing that you think might make the most impact and try to implement a strategy for providing relief.
Make sure though, it’s something you are confident you can implement, there is no point trying everything I’ve recommended here, especially if you don’t think you can do it from the start.
So isolate something you feel you can do and try doing it daily for 30 days, see how it feels/goes.Sometimes progress is fast, and sometimes it’s slow.
If it’s slow, maybe that’s more impactful change than you think.
It’s something that could be a good stepping stone to trying something else that is more impactful.
If progress is fast, then you’re on the right track keep going.
The important thing here still, is don’t try to do all of this at once.
I’m only giving you some ideas or suggestions, given limited time, I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed.
Trying to take all of these changes on at once, is a recipe for failure.
Take a moment to find one thing to work on, and tackle it with all your energy.
You’re less likely to succeed if you try to tackle more than one thing at a time.
Do all of this one at a time, be mindful and deliberate about it.
I’ve given you a lot of ideas, but don’t try to learn several new skills at one time, pick a skill that you’re overly confident you can learn with a little practice and a little patience.
Practice it, until it becomes easy to execute and then layer something new over top.
Maybe that means, identifying the cue/trigger first.
Then try working on your environment.
If you don’t find something there, maybe you could sleep a little more.
Find something you think you are lacking and work to improve it, if you believe it will make a difference.
If nothing there works, then you might consider reading the book ‘The Beck Diet’ which is not really a diet book, it’s a psychology book for improving upon emotional eating.
It uses a form of cognitive behavioral therapy that can be very effective for a lot of people with chronic emotional eating problems.
And if that still doesn’t work, I highly recommend that you invest in a counsellor or some other psychology professional in your area.
This may be beyond some of the skills I list above, but a lot of people don’t like the idea of talking to someone about their emotions and psychology.
If some kind of mental problem like depression is truly the problem, then you might really need it.
I recommend particularly one with previous experience treating emotional eating and/or treats with cognitive behavioral therapy (a very effective treatment option for emotional eating).
Best of luck and let me know if you make some progress in the months ahead!