Emotional Eating

“I can’t stop emotionally eating!”

If this is you, you aren’t alone. Around 60% of my clients list this as a “major challenge”, with over 50% saying they have “intense cravings” and “snack when not hungry”.

This doesn’t just mean when things are negative either. Celebrations and social events are emotional too. 

The goal is simply to notice and name each time these episodes of emotional eating happen. 

  • Sunday evenings when getting ready for a new work week
  • Each time you make arrangements to see certain friends or family members
  • Communicating with your ex about the kids

The first step in regaining control is becoming aware of when the behaviour happens. Identifying the trigger means you can disrupt automatic behaviours and make different choices.

Sitting there at the end of your meal, bloated, thinking “how on earth did I let this happen again?!” is not uncommon, and you definitely aren’t alone. 

But what can you do to make sure next time you’re more in control of your choices?

Get to the root of the craving.

First comes the urge, then comes the eating behaviour. Finally, the reward is the big hit of dopamine you get for eating the food you wanted. But the more often you give in to the behaviours, the stronger that craving can become.

So – we notice and name to find the trigger. 

This is often something in the environment, such as sights, smells, tastes, locations or the company you’re in. If we track when and where these urges occur, we can adjust our environment and disrupt the cycle. 

Keeping a cravings journal might be as simple as keeping a document on your phone. Each time you feel the urge, you open up the document and record the follwing:

  1. What are you craving? Specific foods, or certain flavours or textures.
  2. Where are you? Location is important, but also other environmental cues like smells or visual information – adverts, billboards, etc.
  3. What are you doing? Driving, watching TV, working on something repetitive?
  4. What are you feeling physically? Actually hungry, shaky, tense, lightheaded?
  5. What are you feeling emotionally? Anxious, rushed, upset?
  6. What are you thinking? “I’ve already messed up the diet, I might as well go for it now!”
  7. Who is around you? Be specific about the people.

What. Where. Task. Body. Heart. Mind. Who.

You can keep a journal like this for a few days, or a few weeks. There are almost always patterns to how you’re feeling before you start craving. Once you’ve found the pattern, here are some things you can do to combat them:

  1. Put it into a time out. Notice the urge, sit with it for 5 minutes without taking any action. This is about making an active choice, rather than mindlessly hoovering up delicious things in your immediate area. Your choice is more likely to be rational rather than reactionary. Consider whether you’re actually hungry – I like to do this by checking “would I eat ham, jacket potato and a big salad now?” if the answer is yes, I’m probably hungry. If I answer no – I do just want that ice cream, I might be procrastinating, bored, stressed, or otherwise emotional – and that’s okay. I still might choose to have it. But then it will be a choice – and then I’m less likely to feel bad about it afterwards.
  2. Do something else which doesn’t involve chewing. Walk around the block, go wash your hands, spend 10 minutes cleaning up, or delete the random photos out of your phone for a while. By doing something engaging for a little while, you might chase that urge away. This is because your cravings are almost always psychological rather than physical and most feelings are pretty fleeting. If you’re actually hungry, the craving will still be there in 15 minutes. If you aren’t, it will probably have gone by then. You’re just trying to occupy yourself for a short period – a little buffer to divert your attention.
  3. Try fasting. This won’t be right for everyone, and it shouldn’t be something you consider if you have any health issues. But it can be useful to feel real hunger, and to learn to listen to your body’s actual physical hunger pangs. Lots of people treat hunger as an emergency – and one that requires immediate attention and action: it isn’t an emergency to be hungry for a short while. You will find that hunger comes and goes in waves – usually in relation to external cues like mealtimes, socialising or environmental stimuli. You’ll get hungry, you’ll get a chance to really feel it and then it will fade. It can be quite empowering to know that you won’t collapse and the sky doesn’t fall in if you don’t eat for a few hours.
  4. Eat right during the day. It’s way more common to overeat during the evenings rather than during the day time, possibly because you’re restricting what you eat during the daytime, or making less filling choices. Protein and fibre from low calorie veggies help to fill you up, and can help you to feel fuller for longer. So if you’re prone to wanting a little extra something after your evening meal, it might be that what you’ve eaten during the day could do with a look. Nourishing your body throughout the day with lean protein and high fibre can quieten that evening voice that encourages you to go on the hunt for “something nice”.
  5. Have the snack. There are several strategies you can use if you still want the snack. 
    1. You could have a rule that whatever you want, you have to make yourself. Want cake? OK, you can have it, but it’s got to be home made. Can’t be bothered? Good. You don’t want it badly enough.
    2. You could have a rule that you can have the snack, but it’s got to be bought immediately before eating from a shop that’s over 15 minutes away, or that you walk to. You don’t keep it in the house. Remember the importance of your environment. Can’t be bothered? Good. You don’t want it badly enough.
    3. You could have a rule that you can have the chocolate, but it’s got to be super expensive, premium chocolate – like £5 a bar – and then savour every piece. You’re less likely to wolf it down, and less likely to do this every day. Can’t be bothered? Good. You don’t want it badly enough.

Get the idea? You want to put some buffers in between the urge and the behaviour to make sure you really want to do it rather than doing it mindlessly, or before you’ve really considered if this is what you want.

If you still feel like you need some help with what to eat, you can jump over onto the free e-book I have, which has plenty of ideas on how to structure your meals for the week, the day, and by macronutrient. It’s super easy to follow, and it’s FREE.

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