Emotional Eating: How to Stop Using Food to Cope

September 19, 2016

If I were to pinpoint one of the top reasons many people struggle with weight management, it would be emotional eating. There are so many people who eat to deal with feelings of sadness, loneliness, and boredom but it is rarely something we talk about. This is such a shame because since no one talks about it, it makes those people engaging in emotional eating feel like something is wrong with them.



Why we eat to cope with emotions


I’m here to tell you there isn’t anything wrong with you, eating to cope with emotions is not only common and something you can overcome (keep reading below) but it makes sense. Why? For starters, our brains are designed to really like sugar, fat, and salt. When food wasn’t plentiful, having a positive response to these types of foods meant you would get enough calories to survive. 


So what is that positive response? For starters, sugar signals the reward pathway in our brains, causing a release of dopamine from the part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. This can be a large surge if a large amount of sugar is consumed, almost like what happens when someone takes drugs. In other words, eating sugary foods makes us feel better. It doesn’t last very long but we do feel relief from our negative emotions for a little bit.


To clarify, I do not think that everyone needs to eliminate all sugar from their diet because it is evil and toxic. I do think that many of us eat too much sugar, far beyond the recommended 6 to 9 teaspoons per day but that’s another discussion for another day. What I’m trying to do is explain why using food to cope with feeling sad, lonely, or bored makes sense.


Emotional eating makes even more sense when you think about how our society uses food. Just think for a second about your last breakup. Did your friends come over with ice cream and brownies to cheer you up? Does your family have a ‘food is love’ mentality where love is shown by feeding others? I’m not saying that this makes you an awful friend or family member. Full disclosure: I even have a recipe for particularly decadent brownies that I would make for friends when they were going through a hard time in High School and University that I called “Breakup Brownies.” I’m just pointing out how this makes us more likely to turn to food when we are feeling down and why it is not something to be ashamed of.


So how do you stop?


So now that we’ve determined that it makes sense to use foods to cope with emotions from a biological and sociological perspective, what can we do about it? I want to start by saying that trying to completely eliminate all forms of emotional eating is not the goal here. All of us do it sometimes, it is more a matter of making sure this is not your only way of coping with emotions so it is not always what you turn to. It's okay to come home and have a treat after a long day sometimes if you eat it mindfully but it shouldn't be your only form of coping.

1) Keep a Food and Mood Journal


The first thing I recommend clients do is to start becoming aware of what they are feeling. Often, they may not even be aware that they are eating to cope with their emotions. In order to become aware of what is going on, I recommend keeping a food and mood journal.


Essentially, what you’re recording is the five W’s:

  • Who you were with

  • What you were feeling/ what you were eating

  • Where you were

  • When you were eating

  • Why you were eating (this is the most difficult one which will likely take time after analyzing the other four W’s.)

Once you start recording this, you will be able to figure out a pattern for your eating. Some individuals may find they eat alone, feeling bored, in front of the television after dinner. Others may find it is by themselves, feeling stressed after a long day at work in the car. What you notice here is going to be what dictates your next step. 


You can do this on paper and the Mindful Eating Journal I mentioned last post would also work well for helping you to figure out these patterns, or the app I mentioned last time, Recovery Record can be really helpful to put everything together if you prefer to do it on your phone.


2) Find another way of coping with your emotions


Let’s say that you are eating due to stress after a long day of work. Sit down and write down a list of things other than food that make you feel better. This list will be different for everyone as everyone has different interests and likes but here is an example list:

  • Go for a walk with the dog

  • Play with your kids

  • Read a book

  • Phone a friend

  • Listen to music

  • Practice an instrument

  • Write in a journal

  • Go to the gym

  • Gardening


*going on the computer and watching television are ones to watch out for because often, clients end up eating more in front of the screen. This is different for everyone but I would recommend trying to find something else before turning towards the television.


3) Try to post a list of alternative activities in the area where you know you are emotionally eating. 


If you know that you tend to go for chips in the cupboard in the kitchen, I suggest posting a list asking if you’re really hungry with your alternative activities on the cupboard. If it happens that you go for ice cream in the freezer, maybe it goes in the freezer. If you’re a drive-through person, maybe you post a little note in your car or set an alarm on your phone to go off with the note when you get to that GPS location.


Why is the list a good idea? You’ve gotten into the habit of eating to cope with your emotions and it is not an easy habit to break. Some people feel like they're almost on auto-pilot when they're eating to cope with emotions. That little note will help you to break from mindlessly going for food when you’re feeling stressed, bored, or sad. I’m not saying that this note is going to miraculously stop you from emotional eating but I find from working with my clients using this technique, it definitely helps.


4) Sometimes, you need the help of a professional


Like I said, this is not an easy habit to break. Having someone to work with you to reduce your emotional eating can be really helpful because often individuals have a hard time recognizing what’s going on. A Registered Dietitian trained in emotional eating and weight management can be really helpful moving forward with this. If you want help, you can book an appointment with me by clicking here


Sometimes there are deeper underlying issues beyond feeling stressed or bored. If you are dealing with more serious mental health issues such as past trauma, depression, or anxiety, working with a registered psychologist or psychiatrist is likely the way to go. Talk to your healthcare professional about a referral to seek help.


Note: if you find the area of neural rewards in response to eating interesting, I highly recommend reading a book called The End of Overeating. Taking control of the insatiable North American Appetite by David Kessler MD. He goes more into how our brain responds to sugar, fat, and salt and how the food industry uses this to manipulate consumers into eating more.


I hope this helps and again, if you are struggling with emotional eating and need help don't hesitate to contact me to discuss an appointment.




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