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How to Control Emotional Eating - Causes, Prevention and Great Tips

Updated on November 15, 2016
janderson99 profile image

Dr John uses his Biochemistry & Physiology research background (PhD) to develop authoritative reviews of dieting, weight loss, obesity, food

One of the real enemies of any weight loss plan is the slip-ups caused by emotional eating. Just when we start to make progress something happens to trigger a bout of feeling down and out and we reach for the comfort food and break the hard-won resolve to control what we eat.

Studies by prominent psychologist and researchers who specialise in eating disorders and emotional eating have identified a fundamental cause related to people lacking the skills to cope with bad feelings and the roller coaster of emotions we all experience in life.

People need to understand that it is OK to feel bad sometimes and that it takes time to work through the troughs on the roller coaster ride. Instead people reach for the quick fix to get instant relief from bad feelings. Many of these bad episodes are caused by stress and anxiety, some of it self-induced.

Knowing the cause of bad feelings, how to deal with it in ways that does not involve grabbing for the comfort food and generally coping with negative emotions is the key to dealing with emotional eating tendencies. This article explores the issues and reviews the research on this topic.

The Emotional Eating Cycle
The Emotional Eating Cycle | Source
Make food with smaller portions sizes interesting
Make food with smaller portions sizes interesting | Source
Boring meals don't help!
Boring meals don't help! | Source

The Quick Fix is Not the Solution

We have the notion negative feeling must be overcome straight away. While as parents we often distract children when they get upset, we don't do the same thing to ourselves. Some type of distraction, apart from food, can work well in adults as well, such as doing some exercise or watching a video. People do not learn how to work through their negative feelings and rough periods. Instead we seek the quick fix and grab some alcohol or calorie laden snack so we feel better. This becomes a habit that is hard to overcome.

If you learn work through your negative feeling when they arise, you will realise that the feelings are like a roller coaster, rising up with intensity and then subsiding. It is rather like hunger pangs themselves. It is very powerful to realise that you can handle these episodes of negative feelings. It is also empowering to realise that you can cope with the down times without grabbing for a quick-fix antidote. Being negative some of the time is quite normal

Learning to ride out the negative feelings is one key to preventing emotional eating and eating when you are not really hungry. The other key is to re-educate yourself with hunger signals via a technique called mindful eating. Understanding hunger and fullness signals and taking control of them is very effective and is a critical part of dieting that many people never get acquainted with.

One way to do this is to use a 0 to 7 scale of hunger.

  • 0 is starving or ravenous
  • 7 is completely stuffed and full of food.
  • try to stop eating at a scale of 4-5
  • try to eat a small snack at 2-3, before you reach the ravenous stage.

The idea is to stop getting completely ravenous as this often leads to overeating - overshooting the hunger pangs and overshooting so you eat more than you really need. Part of this is about eating food slowly and really engaging with food so that your hunger can be satisfied. This means not eating when you are doing something else and gulping down the food. Eating too quickly or when you are distracted means that you can miss the fullness signals. It also means that you deny yourself the opportunity of really enjoying your food and savoring every mouthful.

People who diet often think they have to switch to boring foods and simply believe that they have to regard food as a fuel. This is a mistake because they miss the enjoyment of food they had when not dieting and part of the problem is that they crave for this enjoyment and go back to the foods they really like to eat.

More About Mindful Eating

Mindful Eating is a simple-to-learn life skill that is not a diet, but is a guide for the way we eat, not what we eat.

Being mindful means focusing on the present moment and re programming the way we respond to food, emotionally as well as physically.

The main principles of Mindful Eating entails:

  • Being aware of the positive features and enjoyment you can get from preparing food and eating it.
  • Making the decision to eat food that is healthy for you and is pleasing to a wide range of senses - taste and aroma and so is food that you like to eat. It is food with a whole kaleidoscope of sensation that helps you keep focused and mindful of what you are eating.
  • Not judging yourself about your responses to food.
  • Becoming more aware of what physical hunger means and learning read and manipulate the satiety cues to make better decisions about when to start and stop eating
  • Identifying what triggers emotional eating, which is mindless eating. This could be negative emotions or circumstances, feelings of denial, social pressures or the craving for certain foods and the quick feeling of fullness that they generate (the sugar hit).

Why Mindful Eating Works

Extensive research has shown that mindful eating has helped many people to control, emotional eating, craving for food, overeating tendencies and binge eating. It works by helping people to recognise the body’s internal satiety and hunger signals.

The reasons why people engage in mindless eating rather than mindful eating are because they:

  • Do not recognise the difference between eating to satisfy real hunger, rather than for other reasons
  • Do not take the time, or are unaware of the signals your body tells you about hunger, fullness and satiety
  • Confuse thirst with hunger, and eat when all they really need is a drink
  • Allow themselves to get too far too hungry and eating too quickly so they overshoot their need to satisfy their hunger;
  • Eat a quantity of food that should make them feel full and satisfied, but it doesn't.
  • Eat in advance of feeling hungry so that they won't feel hunger at a later stage.
  • Eat in response to emotions rather than hunger and their physical needs
  • Eat to 'take a break' because they are tired or bored

Mindful Eating is designed to counteract these tendencies by making people more aware of their senses and becoming better at understanding hunger and the signals about hunger, fullness and keeping the emotions out of the decisions about when and what to eat. The mindful eating approach includes making a decision to really enjoy your food and eating healthily, slowing down the rate at which you eat food, keeping a mindful journal, focusing more on the eating experience and not letting distractions such as watching television block your senses relating to when you are full and what you are eating.

Mindful Eating Techniques and Tips

  • Eating small or moderate amounts of food every 2-3 hours to stop getting extremely hungry and tending to overeat.
  • Checking that you are really hungry and not just thirsty. Drinking water can often satisfy feelings of hunger, particularly as hunger pangs may go away after 5-10 minutes.
  • Taking time to eat as a special occasion, sitting down to enjoy it. Do not eat on the run - standing up or walking, rushing to do something else.
  • Focusing on the food and eating before you begin a meal - not on other distractions.
  • Eating slowly savoring every mouthful and allowing time for hunger to wane and the satiety feelings to develop and curtail your eating.
  • Returning your knife, fork or spoon to the table between mouthfuls. This helps you enjoy the food, slows down the eating and encourages you to think about stopping.
  • Being aware that you don't have to feel 'stuffed' or completely full of food. You can stop earlier because it takes a while for the hunger signs to wane. Usually when you stop early you will soon feel well satisfied anyway. Wait 10-20 minutes before eating anything else if you still feel hungry.
  • Enjoy your meals. You won't be satisfied unless you enjoy it. Divorce the volume of food as the measure of being satisfied and switch it to eating smaller quantities of foods you really like.
  • Start keeping a food dairy. Many people are surprised how much they eat when they write it all down in a journal. The simply act of writing it down is very helpful.

© 2013 Dr. John Anderson


Submit a Comment

  • Alt Mental Health profile image

    Sarah Rose 3 years ago from Washington

    All great tips. Food addiction is so hard to beat. Thank you for your help!

  • janderson99 profile image

    Dr. John Anderson 4 years ago from Australia on Planet Water

    I tend to eat cause I'm bored. Don't eat lunch works for me, as long as I can deal with the hunger. It means I can have a 'normal' family meal at night.

  • carol7777 profile image

    carol stanley 4 years ago from Arizona

    I have to commend you on a great job here and covering this subject. I am one of those people who stop eating during emotional events. However, I do understand how people can easily get into this eating habit. Voting up and pinning.