Three ways to overcome emotional eating:
- Practice mindful eating by avoiding distractions from technology and take your time with each mouthful.
- Be prepared with if/then scenarios to provide different options when emotions strike.
- Take away the guilt by removing any labels from food that attach a moral value to them. All foods can be included as part of a healthy diet.
Understandably, many of us are experiencing heightened stress, uncertainty, and anxiety in our current environment.
This might result from financial pressures, fear for our health or the health of loved ones, and uncertainties around the future.
At Second Nature, you’re provided with a registered nutritionist or dietitian trained to support you in managing emotional eating and taking back control of your health.
Over 150,000 people have joined Second Nature, and 9/10 people lose weight and keep it off in the long term.
If you’d like to join our community of people changing their minds about losing weight, click here to take our health quiz.
In this guide, we’ll be sharing our top tips on how to overcome stress eating in the moment and better manage our food cravings. Remember, not one size will fit all. It’s crucial to find a strategy that works for you.
It’s important to remember that it can take our brain a long time to lay down the habit pathway associated with emotional eating, so understandably it will take us time and practice to undo this.
1) Practice mindful eating
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’ve finished a meal and not remembered eating the food? You’re not alone – many of us are focused on something else when we eat, so eating is done on autopilot.
Mindful eating is essential to help us become more aware of what we’re eating, how much we’re eating, and why we’re eating it.
In the long run, this can help with weight loss by controlling our portion sizes and staying in tune with our body’s needs.
The goal of mindfulness, in general, is to practice paying attention on purpose and non-judgmentally to one single thing, which is the complete opposite of multitasking.
In the case of mindful eating, this means turning your full attention to the process of choosing, preparing, and eating your food, whether that be meals, snacks, or drinks.
The first step to mindful eating is to remove distractions at mealtimes. If we’re preoccupied with our surroundings, such as the TV, mobile phone, driving, or work, it’s challenging to focus on eating entirely.
This often leads to us eating more than our body needs or past the point of fullness. Ideally, try to eat at a table away from your workspace and minimise other distractions.
Eating in the company of others is a great way to spend mealtimes – you might even consider a video chat with friends or family over mealtimes if you’re living alone.
Engage your senses
Before eating, take a moment to look at and smell your food. Also, spend some time reflecting on where your food came from and how it was grown and prepared. This will help you appreciate what you’re eating and the work that went into getting food on your plate.
While eating the meal, focus on what each element tastes like in your mouth and savour each bite. Are there certain textures or flavours which pair well together? Turn your attention to enjoying the food that you’re eating.
You could also try dimming one of your senses to heighten the others while you eat a particular food.
For example, you could blindfold yourself or close your eyes while you enjoy a piece of chocolate or a scoop of ice cream.
This activity can make your other senses, like taste and smell, much more engaged, which means you enjoy the chocolate more and feel more satisfied afterwards.
The next step is to take time to eat your meal. Often we eat food on the go or in a hurry while focusing on something else. The ’20, 20, 20′ strategy is a helpful tool to increase mindfulness around food and eating. At each meal:
- Chew your food for 20 seconds
- Put your fork down for 20 seconds between mouthfuls
- Take 20 minutes to eat your meal.
Concentrate entirely on your food; even if you feel your mind wandering, carry on. You’ll likely find that you need to eat less as you become more in tune with your body’s hunger signals and more aware of what you’re eating.
- In the current environment, many of us are finding ourselves snacking more than usual and feeling like we’ve lost control of our food intake Mindful eating is a useful strategy to help us feel more in control of our food choices
- Eating mindfully involves becoming more aware of what we’re eating, how much we’re eating, and why we’re eating it
- It means paying closer attention to the process of choosing, preparing, and eating our meals
- Removing distractions when eating meals and snacks can help us stay more in tune with our feelings of hunger and fullness
- Engaging with all our senses when eating, including taste, smell, sound, feel, and sight, will help us feel more satisfied after our meal
- Slowing down while we’re eating can also give our body enough time to feel full, so we can learn to respond to our fullness cues earlier.
2) Be prepared
Another effective strategy you can try is ‘if/then‘ scenarios. Take a moment to fast-forward to 6 months in the future, and imagine that you’ve failed with your healthy lifestyle changes.
Now try and tell the story of why this happened. What caused you to go off track? What did you struggle with or find challenging? Why was it hard to restart?
Now that you have this information, you can start to develop a plan to stop these scenarios from happening in the first place. This is where our ‘if/then’ scenarios come in.
For each barrier or challenge you might face in the future, think about the action you’ll take in this situation.
- If I’m bored at home and get the urge to visit the pantry, then I’ll listen to a podcast so my mind has something else to focus on.
- If I’m feeling upset after watching the news and I get a craving for ice cream, then I’ll sit down and try a brain-training app.
- If I had an awful day and feel overwhelmed with a lack of routine, then I’ll call my friend for a chat.
Try to write down a complete list of all the possible scenarios you foresee as a potential challenge. Then when you’re faced with these situations in the future, you’ll feel better prepared with a plan to manage them.
If you are faced with one of your triggers and your current ‘if/then’ scenario doesn’t work – that’s ok! It may take a few attempts before you find an alternative outlet that’s effective in soothing your emotions.
Research has also shown that the best tasks to take your mind off food are cognitively challenging ones.
This means going for a walk, meditation, or bath may not be effective ways to distract yourself. However, something that engages your brain can be a better distractor, such as:
- Sudoku puzzles
- Brain training apps
- Chess or scrabble
- Calling a friend
- Learning a new dance routine or taking a dance class
- Learning a musical instrument or language
- Playing a board game
- Listening to a podcast
- You might like to try some of these cognitively challenging tasks in your ‘if/then’ scenarios!
- Being prepared for emotional cravings ahead of time can help you better manage them in the moment
- One strategy to help you prepare is doing ‘if/then’ scenarios, which involves forecasting some behaviours you could do in response to every possible scenario
- Cognitively challenging tasks are also more likely to help you move on from an emotional craving compared to more relaxing activities
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3) Take away the guilt
It’s also crucial that you try to take away any feelings of guilt that can arise during or after an episode of comfort or emotional eating. One way to do this is to stop labelling foods as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘junk food’, ‘treat’, or ‘syn’.
This can foster a negative relationship with food and create an ongoing cycle of comfort eating. Instead, there should be foods we enjoy every day and foods we enjoy less often.
Try to avoid strict rules around food, like ‘I can’t eat a bag of chips during the week’ or ‘I’m not allowed to drink fizzy drinks ever again’.
Generally, strict rules tend to have the opposite effect of making us crave these foods even more, causing feelings of guilt or shame if we break one of these rules.
Try to have a more balanced viewpoint, such as ‘I’ll only have chocolate when I truly feel like it.’ Then allow yourself to enjoy the chocolate when you want it and move on afterwards.
Every one of us will have different triggers for emotional eating. Likewise, we need an individualised approach to feeling in control of our emotions.
The Second Nature programme teaches you to enjoy food mindfully without counting numbers, calories, or fixating on weight. We believe there’s so much more to health than the food you put in your mouth.
That’s why we take a more holistic approach and focus on mindset, stress, sleep, exercise, and nutrition.
Remember that there’s a difference between emotional eating and binge eating disorder (BED), a severe mental illness.
Overeating now and again is perfectly normal; however, if you’re experiencing binge-eating episodes at least once a week for three months, it’s essential to seek help from a qualified healthcare professional.
- Removing the guilt often associated with emotional eating episodes is important to help you overcome them
- Avoid labelling foods or putting strict rules around certain foods, which can foster a negative relationship with food
- Try to adopt a more balanced and flexible viewpoint towards food and allow yourself to enjoy the foods you love mindfully
Take home message
- Mindful eating is an effective strategy to help us be more in control of our food choices.
- Being prepared for emotional eating cravings ahead of time can also help us to better manage these in the moment.
- It’s also essential to remove any guilt associated with emotional eating and try to take a more balanced approach towards occasional foods.
- Remember that we all need an individualised approach to manage emotional eating better. It will take time and practice to overcome this, and we should approach this process with kindness and acceptance towards ourselves.