Overcoming Emotional Eating

Emotional eating used to take over my life. I used to eat out of boredom, sadness and stress. Food was a go-to coping mechanism for me and overcoming this seemed an impossibility. Humans are wired to feel comforted with food. Evolution has primed us to gravitate towards food that fuels us and is rich with fat and sugars. That was what our ancestors needed to survive famines, fleeing and fighting. Of course, our ancestors didn’t have chips, chocolate bars and cookies as options in their pantry. Our ancestors also didn’t have to face the temptations put before us by a food industry that invests heavily in creating biologically irresistible foods with a perfect blend of sugars, fats, salt and chemical additives. 

For these reasons, emotional eating is understandable. It’s also not the end of the world to sometimes eat out of a desire for pleasure even when you’re not hungry. Food brings us joy and that’s ok!

However, when emotional eating begins to take over and leaves you feeling unwell, that’s when you’re going to want some solutions to manage it. 

Identify It 

Often, the first place to start is to identify when emotional eating is happening in the first place. This means asking yourself if you are truly hungry when you make a decision to eat. If the answer is no, then ask yourself if your choice to eat is an attempt to appease a particular emotion. Then, try to identify what that emotion is. Once you know whether you are dealing with anxiety, sadness, boredom, stress or something else, you’ll want to try to think of ways that you can soothe these emotions in a deeper way than food. 

This can be difficult because food provides quick relief and requires less work than other options – but that relief is temporary and not addressing the root cause. Some people suggest distracting yourself from emotional eating by doing something like drinking water or having a vegetable instead of a less healthy choice. These solutions also don’t address the root of the issue. If you’re lonely, talk to someone. If you’re bored, get out and get a change of scenery. If you’re anxious or stressed, turn to other coping mechanisms that you know work for you (exercise, journaling, natural anxiety remedies, etc.). 


Eat Right to Prevent It

If we don’t have a balanced diet from the beginning of the day, it can make us more vulnerable to poor food choices during moments of emotional eating. For example, having a breakfast full of high glycemic index foods (like a white flour english muffin) can cause a spike in blood sugar followed by a dip in blood sugar which can trigger food cravings. Having a diet lower in fibre can leave you feeling less satisfied with your meals. 

Eating enough protein, fruits, vegetables and whole grains may make avoiding emotional eating episodes a little easier. 

Beware of Deprivation

When you strictly deprive yourself of certain foods, it can have complicated results. Sometimes, the restriction can help you overcome food cravings. In many cases, food restrictions can intensify food craving by creating a “forbidden fruit” effect. The scientific evidence around this is complicated and every person may respond to food deprivation differently.  

For me and many others, deprivation makes things worse. If I try to appease my emotions without food and I still have a craving, it’s better to just have the food that I’m craving but really take my time and enjoy it mindfully without distractions so I can savor every bite. Studies are beginning to show that mindful eating can help with food cravings and emotional eating. 

Ultimately, overcoming emotional eating involves addressing your emotions directly in non-food ways. It also involves nourishing yourself well overall. If you do “give in” to emotional eating, ditch the guilt, be gentle with yourself and savour moderate portions of your food of choice in a slow and mindful way. 

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Dr. Samantha Dass, ND

Dr. Samantha Dass (ND) is a registered naturopathic doctor. She received her Doctor of Naturopathy degree from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. Before this, Dr. Dass received an Honours Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Toronto. There she majored in both nutrition and human biology with a focus on health and disease. As a naturopathic doctor, Dr. Dass believes good health care should transform your life. She believes good health care should be as gentle as possible and should be based on scientific research. She has a special interest in mental health, including anxiety and high stress. She also has experience with many other conditions. She is a member in good standing with the Ontario Association of Naturopathic Doctors and the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors.