Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Eating

Healthy Living, Mental Health Steward Health Care

We have all been there. After a long day of work, shuttling kids around, or just simply being stressed or upset you find yourself raiding the refrigerator or the pantry. This type of eating is called emotional eating, and it affects most everyone from time to time.

Sadness, boredom, and other negative emotions can drive emotional eating. Emotional eating includes polishing off a container of ice cream after a breakup or devouring a bag of potato chips when you’re home alone on a Saturday night. But happy events like weddings and parties can lead to overeating. This pattern of regularly letting your feelings guide your food intake can affect your health.

“Eating more food than your body needs can have dangerous consequences,” explains Theresa Piotrowski, MD, a Steward Health Care bariatric physician. “People who eat for emotional reasons sometimes gain too much weight, and this puts them at greater risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and cancer. Excessive eating has emotional consequences as well. These include feeling guilty or embarrassed afterward.”

Strategies to deal with emotional eating
Here are steps you can take to stop emotional eating episodes and break the cycle:

  • Learn to recognize hunger. Next time you reach for a snack, ask yourself what’s driving it. If you are truly hungry, you’ll notice physical symptoms, such as a growling stomach. Other, less obvious hunger cues include irritability and difficulty concentrating. If those signs are absent, you probably don’t need to eat right then.
  • Keep a journal. Take the time to create a “mood and food” journal. Write down what you eat each day, along with the emotions you were experiencing at the time and whether you were truly hungry. You may find that specific feelings, such anger or sadness, lead to your overeating. Once you recognize these triggers, you can learn healthier ways to deal with them.
  • Build a support network. Surround yourself with friends and family who support your efforts to change your eating habits. It may also be helpful to join a support group to meet other people with similar problems and learn better ways of coping.
  • Engage in an interesting activity. Finding an activity that you enjoy can increase self-confidence, which is often low in emotional eaters. Examples of these activities are yoga, playing a musical instrument, or painting.
  • Get help if necessary. If you can’t control emotional eating on your own, consider getting professional help to change your behavior. A form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy can teach you to change your eating habits and deal with unpleasant emotions in a better way. Medicine, including antidepressants and appetite suppressants, may also help.

If you need help, speak with your health care provider to learn about treatment options that may best suit your needs.

To find a doctor or schedule an appointment, visit Steward DoctorFinder™.