Overcoming Emotional Eating

Shelby McDaniel Image

Our purpose for eating is to nourish our bodies and provide it fuel. Food is part of our need for survival. We are naturally wired to create and receive signals regarding hunger, know when it’s time to eat, and when to stop. Unfortunately today we live in a world where we are constantly surrounded by an abundance of food, and we have lost connection with listening to our bodies when it comes time to eat and the need to stop eating. Eating now tends to occur when we’re stressed, happy, anxious, bored, restless, sad, and the list goes on. It also occurs when food is in front of us, it’s catered, free and available, or when it’s time to celebrate or seek a reward after a hard day at work. There is no harm in having an emotional connection with your food. In almost all cultures, food plays in an important role in celebrations, family time, and religion. The harm comes when that is your only means to deal with your emotions, resulting in a vicious emotional eating habit.

Remember that guy Pavlov? He did an experiment measuring dogs’ saliva around meal times. He would ring the bell and feed the dog, ring the bell and feed the dog, and eventually the dog would salivate at simply the ring of the bell without even seeing the food present because the dog learned to expect food by the sound of a bell. Pavlov discovered a basic psychology fundamental called classic conditioning. Let’s translate that into our human world. If we’re sad we eat, happy we eat, stressed we eat (ding ding ding-there’s our bell!). Our emotions are like the bell in Pavlov’s experiment. Every time our bell rings, we have learned that food is the solution! It is no wonder why it becomes so difficult to break this vicious cycle!

The truth is when we eat because we’re mad, sad, glad, anxious, or bored, the emotions at hand are temporarily suppressed. As soon as we are done eating, we are once again mad, sad, glad, anxious, or bored, followed by additional guilt and frustration…and what do we do? Eat again! So when the question arises does emotional eating make you feel better in the end and put your emotions and feelings to rest? Let’s be honest, the answer is NO. We end up feeling WORSE! We can now all agree when you’re already feeling mad, sad, glad, anxious, or bored, it doesn’t make sense to take action and make yourself feel worse in response. Sorta takes that food off that pedestal doesn’t it?

Now that we’re being honest and admitting emotional eating isn’t the solution, the question arises then, how are you suppose to overcome this habit that has been attached to you like a shadow all these years? You move forward with what is called a daily MINDFUL EATING practice. Mindful eating is quite the opposite of reactive and passive emotional eating. It involves slowing down, being in tune with your hunger cues, being observant (without judgement) about what emotions are whizzing around you, and returning back to your senses and listening to your body. Mindful eating allows you to choose food that is both pleasing to you AND nourishing to your body by using all your senses to explore, savor, and taste. With a commitment to a daily mindful eating practice, mindfulness cultivates the possibility of freeing yourself of reactive, habitual patterns of thinking, to proactive ways of thinking and responding. So in this sense, food CAN actually be your solution, not the problem! Now isn’t that a sigh of relief?

Mindfulness can help change an eater’s relationship with food. With mindful eating, food doesn’t have to be viewed as “good” or “bad”, it doesn’t have to be the enemy, rather it becomes connected and draws awareness to one’s feelings, body, and world at large. It can also shed light on other life patterns, as well as the relationship one has with her/himself. For example, if you skip meals or eat fast food, you might ask: “what other things in my life am I skipping over or indulging in like a fast food meal? We have consulted with many clients about emotional eating in our Diet Freedom program and one common life pattern that tends to be overlooked is the lack of time put into one’s self! Eaters all week long do everything for everyone else at home, at work, so it this lack of balance and time put towards one’s self eventually boils over into over-indulging to fill this void without them being aware of it. The solution in this second example isn’t to “strengthen willpower” and to continue to emotionally eat to nurture this neglect to one’s self care, it’s to take a few minutes each day of the week to do something for one’s self, whether that’s watch your favorite TV show, read a magazine, or do nothing that doesn’t involve the use of food.

Mindful eating can transform food into the solution, as the relationship to food has a new and forgiving space to which to grow and to change-and where all things are possible. Shifts in eating habits don’t happen through control and willpower. Only by noticing and accepting what’s happening in each moment is it possible for new habits to emerge. Below is a valuable visual aid and supportive questions to help you understand not just what you eat, but WHY. This cycle is used to help eaters build a better daily mindful eating practice, once again allowing food to be the solution, NOT the problem. Let’s walk through the cycle together and ask yourself the following questions…

mindful eating

WHY Do I Eat?

-What situations or emotions trigger you to eat? Social events, stress, boredom? Am I even hungry? Why haven’t I been successful with the various diets in the past, what is missing? Here is a BIG tip: When it comes to your intentions of WHY you eat, set the goal to be the following: To feel better AFTER the meal than before you started. Read that again! This change in mindset can go a long way!

WHEN Do I Feel Like Eating?

How often? How do I know if I’m hungry-do I listen to my hunger cues? What could I do to manage my emotions at hand better without the use of food? Write down a few solutions.

WHAT Do I Eat?

Do I lose track and can’t remember what I eat? (sign of mindlessness) Would a food diary help me become aware of what I eat? Do I restrict too often, then overindulge? Do I enjoy my every day foods, or am I bored with my selection? What types of food do I feel like eating when I’m emotional, why? What specific change would I like to make at this time? What areas of my diet could I improve right now? (eat more fruit, vegetables, etc)

HOW Do I Eat?

Do I eat while I’m distracted, reading, working, talking? Do I eat fast? Do I taste my food? Do I eat differently at home than in public?


How do I feel when I’m done eating, full? Am I still not satisfied even after I overindulge? Do I finish all my food no matter what? Do I know when to stop eating? What causes me to overeat? What could I do to address triggers more effectively (ask for to-go box, say “no”, turn off distractions, save leftovers on kids plates).

WHERE Do I Invest the Fuel I Eat?

Remember, food is fuel. Am I physically active? Do I sit too much? What else can I do with my energy? What else do I want to do with my energy that I’m not doing now, what are my goals?

emotional eating

The Power of Pausing-Your Natural Braking System

To help you move through these questions and new mindful eating thought processes, you want to incorporate what we call a pause before eating. This will help train your brain to be in the moment. You can do this at any time, before ordering food, before entering a stressful environment, even when you’ve already started to react to food because of habit or stress. These four steps can help you when faced with temptation and shift you from reactive, auto pilot mode to proactive, in-charge mode:

1. Stop whatever you’re doing. Notice everything about your body from your breathing to the tips of your toes. This will bring you out of hyper-drive and back to center.

2. Take a few deep breaths. Notice the details of your breathing from the pace to the warmth on your nostrils. Allow your hands, arms, and feet relax and release.

3. Observe what emotions you are feeling in this moment. Ask yourself, “AM I HUNGRY?” Or are you trying to use food to avoid an uncomfortable feeling such as restlessness, stress, loneliness, frustration, etc. This will address the WHY you eat portion of the Mindful Eating Cycle. (And don’t forget, our intentions of eating goal is to feel better after the meal then before you started!)

4. Act out of self-care and concerns. Let your wise and nurturing self move you in a new direction. Reflect on how acting in a more thoughtful and caring way toward yourself will make you feel later that day, then act accordingly out of self-care and and self-concern. When you do put this into practice, congratulate yourself! You are strengthening the brakes and making pausing your skillful response to old habits and daily stress!

There are a lot of things to grasp and digest above. To put it simply, the first step to changing the way you eat and overcome emotional eating is pure awareness. This awareness helps dissolve autopilot behaviors. Begin to think of yourself as detectives (and not as hanging judges!). By paying attention you may begin to notice your food habits. As you become more mindful of each decision point in your Mindful Eating Cycle, you’ll discover small changes that can make a big difference in why, when, what, how, and how much you eat and where you invest your energy. It is ok to ask for help too. I’m hoping this article helps empower you to take steps to improving your own self-care, however if you feel a little overwhelmed, I invite you to schedule a call with us, share your story and struggles, and we can discuss how we can overcome emotional eating together.

I leave you with this quote:

“Emotional eating is an attempt to deal with a tough problem, feeling, or situation we don’t otherwise know how to deal with, and often don’t even know that we have without some kind of symptom to remind us. …..When we strip away the judgement of our emotional eating, and stop calling it a disease, a defect, a problem in and of itself; we can finally see it for what it is: An alert that something in our life needs our attention. Something completely unrelated to food or our weight. Be grateful for the reminder. It might be saving your ass.” Isabel Foxen Duke

Enjoy this article? Join the movement to change the conversation around food and diet culture by sharing this post!