Putting the Kibosh on Emotional Eating

by Dr. Lisa Steres, Psychologist

Steps to help curb the urge to consume food when stressed

They call it comfort food for a reason. Sometimes, when things aren’t going right or stress gets overwhelming, our best source of comfort is food. We know this is a problem. We may even know it as we devour that pint of ice cream. But it can be difficult to stop.

The obvious problem with emotional eating is the potential for weight gain and its associated health repercussions. But the issue goes deeper. Eating our way through a crisis does nothing to correct the underlying issues that initially led to the refrigerator. Even worse, if losing weight is an issue, emotional eating sabotages that goal and can lead to serious self-recrimination, which can lead to more eating.

While there’s no magic bullet to stop emotional eating, there are a number of steps we can take to help curb it.

Don’t be so hard on yourself

It’s easy to berate ourselves as “weak,” after an emotional eating episode. However, that is neither helpful nor accurate. Remember, there was a time in our history when being stressed out meant running for our lives. Stress generates a hormone called cortisol, which makes us hunger for carbohydrates — which are found in food we would need if we had been running for our lives. In other words, eating an entire bag of chips is an evolutionarily appropriate response to a tough day.

Tackle the root of the problem

This is not an easy road, but it’s certainly more effective than stuffing your emotions. Talk to a counselor, join a support group or seek help from family and friends. All these solutions are calorie-free and have the added advantage of being highly effective.

Find ways to control stress

Meditation is a proven method to reduce stress, as is yoga, Tai Chi and other mind-body practices. A workout can also boost your emotional wellbeing. Keep in mind, exercise doesn’t need to be strenuous. A brisk walk around the neighborhood can do a world of good.

Eat (and shop) mindfully

Part of the issue with emotional eating is that we often go on autopilot, without giving much thought to what we’re eating or how much. Pause for a moment. Ask why you’re eating. Are you actually hungry?

Sometimes the battle is won at the store, not the refrigerator. Simply having high-calorie comfort foods in the house can be too much temptation. We often opt for what’s most available, so stocking up on apples rather than mini donuts can make those choices much easier.

Also, buy foods that are low on the glycemic index. High glycemic foods enter the blood stream rapidly and dissipate just as quickly. The alternating spike and crash cycles can perpetuate the desire to eat more.

And just to reiterate: be patient with yourself. It took years to learn to deal with difficult emotions by eating. You won’t fix the problem in a week. Rather, recognize each gain. Every time you choose a piece of fruit over a cookie is a step in the right direction.

This health and wellness tip was provided by Lisa Steres, PhD, a psychologist at Scripps Clinic Center for Weight Management.