Ask the Dietitian: How To Manage Emotional Eating

Balancing life commitments such as family time, work life, relationships or studying can come with a lot of stress which can often times lead to emotional or stress eating which is a very common problem posed to dietitians.

Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better, to fill emotional needs rather than your stomach. Unfortunately emotional eating doesn’t fix emotional problems, and after you have finished eating the emotion is still there, with the added guilt for overeating.

Emotional eating doesn’t generally actually reduce stress, it just feels good at the time of eating. Once finished, you may go back to feeling stressed. It’s very important in the long term to find a better way to manage the stress. One way to do so may be to take up a mindful exercise such as yoga, or meditation apps such as Headspace.  By finding which method works best for you, you can do this when feeling stressed instead of turning to food as the coping mechanism, and a lot of these strategies will take less than 10 minutes! This requires some practice and commitment, but in the long term will be a very useful skill as stress is always going to be an issue at different times in our lives, so knowing how to best manage it is very important.

Another tip may be to try and delay eating when feeling like you want to emotionally eat. This is a similar strategy a smoker might use when they want to quit smoking. Can you wait 5 minutes before eating? If so, can you wait another 5 minutes after that (by distracting yourself maybe with another task)? If you can wait long enough, eventually the craving will subside and you might be able to not emotionally eat altogether. This is also a great exercise for increasing your will power.

Practising mindfulness and stress management techniques will help in the long term, but you also need something to do right now, whilst you wait for these other strategies to work. Currently, when feeling stressed you may turn to food. Let’s accept for a minute that this will continue to be the case until you can better manage your stress/tiredness. You might be able to change the food you are choosing to eat when feeling stressed or tired. In future, try surrounding yourself with healthier options, and trying to remove the unhealthy options, this way when you are feeling stressed you will be much more likely to choose a healthier food. For example, you might carry a box of muesli bars in the car, or always have cut up fruit/veg in the fridge. This way, when the urge to eat is there, you don’t have any savoury or sweet snacks around and are more likely to grab the healthier option because that’s all you have. You will still be emotionally eating, but at least its not chocolate and chips. This won’t always work, and sometimes you probably will choose to eat less healthy foods, however even if it only works some of the time it’s a step in the right direction.

At times when you may be emotionally eating, also try to eat slowly when this is occurring. Most people when they emotionally eat, eat very quickly. Try slowing down and practice mindful eating (check out the Headspace app for a section on mindful eating). Most people who practice mindful eating find they eat less overall, which is great if you’re turning to food due to emotions rather than hunger.

There is no quick fix, and all of the above may take some commitment and practice. If emotional eating is a big problem for you it may be best to see someone for further support. This might be a counsellor to help you find better stress management techniques, or an accredited practising dietitian who help navigate your way through some behaviour change strategies.

There are lots of different ways to try and improve emotional eating, you just need to find something that works for you!