Habit Change

3 techniques to overcome emotional eating

It’s understandable that in the current environment, many of us are experiencing heightened feelings of stress, uncertainty, and anxiety. This might be the result of financial pressures, fear for our own health or the health of loved ones, and uncertainties around the future.

Alongside this, we’re also coping with different challenges that come with working from home and reducing our social interaction, such as increased snacking and emotional eating.

Second Nature recently performed a survey, which included over 1800 participants, to gather further insights into how our lifestyle habits have changed since the coronavirus outbreak. Interestingly, the survey found that over 50% of us are eating more snacks than usual. On top of this, almost 50% of us reported eating when bored and 25% felt out of control with our eating habits.

This highlights that we’re not alone when it comes to experiencing changes to our food choices and eating habits over the past few weeks. The good news: there are effective strategies that we can use to help us take back control and prevent overeating.

Understanding what emotional eating is and identifying emotional eating are important steps to overcoming this.

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 important 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) Practise mindful eating

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’ve finished a meal and not remembered actually eating the food? You’re not alone – many of us are focused on something else when we eat, so the act of eating is done on autopilot.

Mindful eating is an important tool 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 what our body actually 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.

Remove distractions

The first step to mindful eating is to remove distractions at mealtimes. If we’re preoccupied with our surroundings, such as the TV, our mobile phone, driving, or work, it’s difficult to focus on the process of eating entirely.

This often leads to us eating more than what our body needs, or eating 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.

As you’re 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 certain 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.

Slow down

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, and 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.

Key points:

  • 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 difficult? 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 think you might face in the future, think about the action you’ll take in this situation.

For example,

  • 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 full list of all the possible scenarios that you foresee as being 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 find yourself 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 really effective in soothing your emotions.

Research has also shown that the best tasks to do to take your mind off food are cognitively challenging ones. This means going for a walk, meditation, or taking a bath may not be effective ways to distract yourself. However, something that engages your brain can be a better distractor, such as:

  • Sudoku puzzles
  • Crosswords
  • 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!

Key points:

  • 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

3) Take away the guilt

It’s also important 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 that we enjoy less often.

Try to avoid putting strict rules around food as well, 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, then 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.

At the end of the day, every one of us will have different triggers for emotional eating. Likewise, we need an individualised approach when it comes 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, and exercise, as well as nutrition.

Keep in mind that there’s a difference between emotional eating and binge eating disorder (BED), which is a severe mental illness. Overeating every now and again is perfectly normal, however, if you’re experiencing binge-eating episodes at least once a week for three months, it’s important to seek help from a qualified healthcare professional.

Key points:

  • Removing the guilt often associated with emotional eating episodes is important to help you overcome them
  • Avoid levelling foods or putting strict rules around certain foods, which can foster a negative relationship with food
  • Try to adopt a move balanced and flexible viewpoint towards food and allow yourself to enjoy the foods you love mindfully

Take home message

  • Many of us are finding we’re snacking more and feeling less in control of our food choices since social distancing and the coronavirus pandemic
  • 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 important 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 when learning to better manage emotional eating. It will take time and practice to overcome this and we should approach this process with kindness and acceptance towards ourselves.

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Write a response

12 May, 2021

Thankyou this was very interesting and useful. Some points i hadnt considered before eg how will eating make me feel less stressed 🤔

Rhian Nowell-Phillips
10 May, 2021

Great stuff and plenty to ponder on. I’m trying to get back into meditation too, so I’ll add that to my list of cognitive challenges

9 May, 2021

My problem is that I’m rubbish at saying no to my husband or friend when they offer me a snack or high-calorie pudding. I need a little more will-power I think.

8 May, 2021

My aim is to loose weight and eating more healthy.This is very useful information

5 May, 2021

My new motto is “be prepared”. Also I would love a free meal plan. Thanks

Bill Collins
5 May, 2021

I shall try to stop getting angry with myself when I eat something that I shouldn’t.

3 May, 2021

I will try and not feel guilty if I have over eaten. When I have made a slip I am so riddled with guilt I give up all together and continue to over eat.

20 April, 2021

Very useful. The end part about still being able to enjoy something you love and not beat yourself up, wait till you truly need it, enjoy it, then get back on track.

13 April, 2021

Very useful information. I’ve realised I often don’t remember what I’ve eaten. Going to make a huge effort to be much more mindful when eating. Thank you

Susan Eaglestone
9 April, 2021

Hi I shall start my new healthy diet on Monday and I am new on here as well

5 April, 2021

I need to spend time preparing food

4 April, 2021

Liked The notion of preparing yourself for vulnerable times and having a plan thought out to manage it interesting. Will certainly work on this 👍

Pauline Jones
31 March, 2021

Definitely emotional eating binges, why when I have reached target weight twice did I go back to the beginning?
Regards, Pauline

Mebo Ndoro
22 March, 2021

Thanks for good information i used to eat anytime would able to limit myself i was even getting up midnight and eat a heavy meal

Teresa Ougan
21 March, 2021

I will definitely try to slow down when eating my meals, and savour the flavours more.

19 March, 2021

Good information and I definitely need to slow down when eating my meals.

17 March, 2021

Being mindful whilst eating has been very successful. I enjoy the food more, feel full up and even sometimes before I’ve finished my meal

17 March, 2021

Great article. I will be trying the if/then technique as I tend to be an emotional eater.

Alexis Chase
13 March, 2021

A thoughtful and informative article.

Sheree Oxenham
13 March, 2021

An excellent article so well explained and has touched on so many things that I can relate to offering reasons empathy and possible solutions. Thank you

Ruth Brookhouse
10 March, 2021

It’s at night more so during lockdown and with a family personal problem I eat because I’m bored or lonely or stressed.

Lynne Perry
9 March, 2021

Totally agree with the sitting down and taking time to eat thoughtfully . I find i over eat when rushing around its as if your brain does not register that you have eaten enough . I will certainly be using this technique

4 March, 2021

I will try sitting at table to eat rather than eating in front of the tv. Then I will have my mind fully on my meal rather than being distracted and eating more than I need.

3 March, 2021

I’m concentrating on being positive and as I enjoy walking I’m doing lots of this as it gives me the feel good factor

Maureen Davis
22 February, 2021

I started learning French and it got harder so I tried German , Spanish and gealic. I understood some of the German comments on the news

21 February, 2021

I like some of those technics especially the if/then strategies. Very interesting concept that I never used. Very good for an emotional eater like me.

20 February, 2021

Very Interesting read I will try the 20-20-20 approach

12 February, 2021

Good strategies there. I definitely need to slow down when I’m eating and put more thought into what I’m actually eating .

Lesley Yeldham
12 February, 2021

I will certainly try the 20/20 as I don’t do this at the moment. I very happy with the 5 day plan I can’t believe I’m not hungry straight after my meals. My jeans are starting to feel loose.

11 February, 2021

I’ll certainly try 20-20-20. I realise i’m not doing any of these at the moment and yes please to the 5 day plan

3 February, 2021

A good read

Sadie Andrews
31 January, 2021

I will try these methods, as I am a classic emotional eater and have been for many years.

Susie Howey
31 January, 2021

Some interesting strategies to avoid emotional eating or eating out of boredom. Any other guide-lines or information would be useful. Thank you.

Muhammad Khalid Khan
29 January, 2021

Good article. I’ll focus on eating slowly from now and onwards.

Siobhan Burke
28 January, 2021

I would like to lose weight

Amy Groome
28 January, 2021

Hi Siobhan, Second Nature is a 12-week digital programme that helps you build healthier lifestyle habits around the way you eat, move, and think. You can find out more about how our programme can help you by taking our health quiz here

Patricia Flannery
24 January, 2021

I would be interested in learning more on this topic.

Christine Kenny
14 January, 2021

Such a good article, lots of excellent ideas to distract you from eating and when you do eat , to eat mindfully ,and I love the 20-20-20 idea ,I’ll definitely give that a try, I’ve started eating anything in a bowl with a teaspoon which slows me down

Rebecca Crews
7 March, 2021

That is a fab idea Christine.. I’m going to try the same.

Amy Groome
22 January, 2021

We’re so pleased that you found this article helpful, Christine!

Anna Proctor
8 January, 2021

Good article I will definitely put the 20/20/20 rule in place, I’m also going to get some raised beds made this year and grow some of my own veg again. I did this in my 30,s so need to start again.

Joanne Bate
1 January, 2021

I am aware that I am an emotional eater and so the idea of planning in advance how to deal with potential incidents makes sense. I also eat far too quickly and so I will try the 20:20:20 approach. A very good read. Thank you.

Julie Fisk
23 December, 2020

It makes sense. I know I have to prioritise me now, and what I want to achieve.
Get into habit of planning meals properly.

Nadia Mazzone
22 November, 2020

It all makes sense its just putting it to practice. I know that when l’m upset l just keep eating like there were no tomorrow’s and when l have settled down l look back embarrassed. But as l said its putting it to practice and this will take time.

Stephen Henderson
21 November, 2020

57 years i just put food in my mouth and ate and thought about why?but know I shall look at my meals in a different light and ask myself the Q

Patricia Woodward
20 November, 2020

I am going to try and put some of these strategies in operation

Jane Rodley
7 November, 2020

This was really useful especially knowing it is ok to enjoy the occasional treat and not beat myself up. Also it’s helped me gain more of an insight into emotional eating.

Theresa McGuinness
26 October, 2020

I practice 20 x 20 x 20 all of the time however is there a 20 anything that i could use when it comes to sweetness / sugar please!!

Tatiza Costa Turner
17 October, 2020

I took a mindfully class long time ago. Didn’t like to chew on a grape for ever… But now I see it differently, I’ll try the 20 20 20 and see how it goes.

Denise Phillips
17 October, 2020

Very interesting 20 20 20 rule i will definitely give it ago and stop feeling so guilty when I enjoy my big bag of crisps

Ron Middleton
7 October, 2020

I found it reassuring in as much it reinforced my perception of ‘comfort’ eating and alternative ways of trying to control same.

Peter Greenhill
1 October, 2020

I do tend to look for reward if I have worked hard.Thats usually sugar or alcohol.I am adopting the strategies to avoid that one choosing water or exercise.I have a good audio book which helps too.

28 September, 2020

Definitely what Im doing. I like the If/when approach as I could easily go and ‘do’ something other than rummage in the larder or eat whatever I see.
Good article. Need to revisit.

Jay Keep
28 September, 2020

Very helpful, removing guilt,

Debbie Dixon
25 September, 2020

A very good read

19 September, 2020

I find i do emotional eat and it good to see the Reasons for it i take in what you are saying and take it day by day form now no

Mandy Martin
4 September, 2020

Very useful. I am a person who rushes everything and I never slow down when eating. I will try the 20 20 20 plan.

Carolyn Spence
1 September, 2020

Good read. Will need to revisit to remind myself.

Heather Buchanan
21 August, 2020

Very interesting read- thank you. I’ll come back to it as there’s a lot to take in.

12 June, 2020

Could I have free 5 day plan please

8 June, 2020

I’d be interested in the 5 day menu please

Jane Cattell
26 May, 2020

I really like the ‘if/then’ section. I know exactly how I will feel in six months time if I haven’t got to grips with a healthy eating/lifestyle plan – it’s given me extra determination. Even though I’ve only just started on the plan I already can see it is going to be really helpful.

14 May, 2020

This really useful information. I’d not thought about preparing for emotional eating before nor guidelines on how to do it. It’s one of my greatest challenges so I’m very glad to have found this article. Thank you.

25 April, 2020

This sounds a sensible approach and I am interested and would like to find out more.

Tamara Willner
27 April, 2020

Hi Diana, thank you for your comment! To find out more about the Second Nature programme, take our health quiz here.