How To Stop Emotional Overeating


What happened to the bread?

Ever wonder what happened to the food that was right in front of your nose?


Stop right there! Don’t reach for that next potato chip. Take a breath. Are you really hungry or are you being driven by distraction, nervousness, stress, anxiety, depression or maybe all of the above? In Part IV of our continuing series on “Real Help With Weight Loss” we’ll talk about the toll emotions play on diet and weight loss.


It’s a crazy world, one often driven more by unthinking habit than any conscious thought on long-term health. Let’s face it: Stress, anxiety, depression and a host of other factors drive us to distraction, especially when it comes to food. As we go to sooth raw nerves we look for comfort wherever it can be found. To most of us, there’s a real sense we’ll find comfort by consuming sugary, salty or fat-laden meals and snacks. In truth, the very term “comfort food” implies we can get the solace we crave through eating. And it’s not just any food we’re talking about, it’s the foods that slow down our metabolism.



As we learned earlier in this series, our metabolism is the tool we use to manage weight. Slow it down and we gain weight. Speed it up and we lose it. Unfortunately, nothing is really so simple, and too much stress, depression, anxiety or otherwise all play into the mix. As we’re stressed our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol—hormones designed to boost our awareness and reaction to perceived threats in our environment. This is the fight or flight response you’ve no doubt heard of. Eating the wrong foods or not getting the right supplements can also impact a person’s serotonin levels. Serotonin is a chemical transmitter the brain uses to relay signals from one area of the brain to another. Some believe improper levels of serotonin caused by emotional overload and improper diet may be responsible for depression. In other words, as we eat certain foods and undergo certain emotions, chemical and hormonal changes occur within our bodies—changes that impact our ability to resist eating. And it gets worse, since the foods we crave the most also turn out to be the foods most damaging to our health.


Scooping up ice cream on auto-pilot.

When we're emotional, we're under the mistaken impression food can solve our problems.

If we don’t find relief to the emotional overload we face, eventually it impacts us in several ways. We can end up with increased risks for heart disease, it can disrupt our sleep patterns, create digestive problems, create more anxiety and depression, cause obesity, memory impairment, and even play with our complexion. (Sources: Mayo Clinic  & WebMD)


In other words, our ability or inability to handle the emotions that come up in our daily lives plays a huge role in overall heath. And that means it’s a critical factor that affects our ability to lose weight.


When we use food to avoid feelings, we run under the mistaken notion that eating anything is somehow the ultimate means for nurturing ourselves. And unlike the people associated with our turmoil, we know the food we eat won’t talk back to us. For example, we know that ice cream will taste so sweet and cool it’ll just flow down the back of our throats. In no time, we’ll forget all about our troubles—at least for the moment. It’s easy to see why we think of eating food as another way to receive love—a feeling we may not be getting enough of elsewhere.


In a sense we become addicted to the very foods that slow our metabolism to a crawl.

When we aren't paying attention we consume sugary snacks like they're going out of style.

There’s another side to the coin here: When we’re overweight our natural response is to “go on a diet” to remedy the situation. Right or wrong, there’s a hidden agenda in dieting that achieving weight loss is simply a matter of regulating how much food we eat. If only it were that simple. When we’re emotional overeaters (meaning we’re eating to stuff our feelings) the amount of food we consume is by definition a secondary issue. Sure, the number of calories and type of food we eat is important, but the primary issue relates to our ability to deal with feelings. If we don’t deal with them, the natural consequence is to start binging on food, alcohol or even drugs. Unfortunately, if our skill set for managing feelings is inadequate most any diet we choose for losing weight is bound to fail. We’ll continue to binge on junk food every time we feel stressed or a new problem surfaces.


Does emotional overeating really happen? Yes, all the time. Think of any social situation where you meet new people, say a party. Even if you aren’t suffering from anxiety or depression, you can feel uncomfortable or stressed about meeting new people. What do you do? You ask for a beer or a glass of wine and then cruise the food platters your hostess has conveniently lined up to “feed” those uncomfortable feelings. By the time the party’s over you might down 3 to 4 drinks and eat  1200-2000 calories you weren’t planning on. So much for your diet!  This is just one example, but emotional overeating occurs everywhere and all the time. Stressed at work over a deadline? What do you do? You dip into that candy bowl you’ve stashed for the occasion. Watching a scary movie on TV? How do you cope? You start chomping on a whole bag of chips.


8 Ideas To Help Cope With Emotional Overeating


To be clear, emotions can play real havoc with our ability to lose or even maintain weight. And that means we need to be better equipped if our goal is to lead healthier lifestyles. How do we do that? Here are a few ideas to get started:


(1) Read up on emotional overeating and stress, and emotional disorders. Do a search for articles relevant to your situation on the internet or check your favorite book seller.


(2) Develop healthier relationships. Are you regularly giving in or giving up to keep the peace? Do you let friends and loved ones walk all over you or do you set clear boundaries? Maybe it’s time to make a few changes in the way you relate to other people.


(3) Get regular exercise. Again and again we’re told exercise is one of the best means for reducing stress. Start by walking, biking or swimming. What do you got to lose?


Veggies are a good substitute for sugary snacks.

Get smarter about your eating habits. Have healthy delicious snacks readily available.

(4) Eat smarter. We’ll be saying much more on this topic as we continue our series. Meanwhile, consider changing your eating habits. Are you currently eating in front of a computer or TV? Try turning it off while you eat, instead. Do you take the time to savor each bite? Why not? Food is so much more enjoyable when it’s appreciated. Is food too accessible in times of stress? Store it out of reach so you have to make a bigger effort to get at it.


(4) Try journaling. As you go throughout your day, make eating food a more conscious process by journaling when you ate, what you ate and what if anything your were feeling while you ate. Sometimes, just drawing attention to a pattern is all we need to change it.


(5) Change your habits. This is no easy task, but anything you can do to make your mind work a littler harder might be enough to realize you’re feeling emotional and don’t really need that extra snack. Try eating with only your left hand if you’re right-handed, or vice versa. Use smaller plates and bowls (this forces smaller serving sizes). Don’t buy food you know is unhealthy or you should avoid in the first place. Prepare ready-to-eat bags of veggies or fresh fruit and use them for snacks. Force yourself to practice taking smaller bites. Tell yourself you’ll only get one helping no matter how delicious the meal. If it’s really that good you can have more in a couple hours. Eating smaller meals more often is far better than stuffing yourself silly all at once.


There's nothing like a happy dog to help you cut stress.

Find ways to help you relax. Why not take the dog for a walk? It'll do you both some good.

(6) Find more ways to relax. The goal is less stress. Try yoga, stretching, listening to soothing sounds or music. For more ideas see our post “The 12 Ways I Manage Stress“.


(7) Practice laughing. Laughter has real and proven benefits for helping people break a cycle of stress and anxiety. Look for things that tickle your fancy. Watch funny videos, read humorous books, and check out fun websites that leave you with a smile. Hey, we’ve got some great comics right here.


(8) Get help. If you’ve gone down the list and still feel stuck it’s a sign you may need help. Why not consider professional counseling? Find a specialist who deals with the emotional issues most relevant to your situation and/or one who is knowledgeable about eating disorders. Don’t feel bad about reaching out. Feel proud you’re taking steps to better your health.


In our next segment, we’ll look into why getting more physical can make a huge difference as you go to lose weight. Stay tuned.


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