In this post you’ll learn a key perspective on how to stop emotional eating, i.e. eating in response to negative feelings or stressors.
In this post you’ll learn a key perspective on how to stop emotional eating, i.e. eating in response to negative feelings or stressors.
Specifically, we’ll be talking about the moment before you emotionally eat.
For example, imagine you are about to put a piece of food in your mouth. You’re standing in the kitchen holding whatever food you emotionally eat. Could be a pretzel, bowl of rice, cupcake, you name it.
Normally you’re in some sort of trance. You’re anxious, and somehow the food is just in your mouth before you know it.
But not today, not after reading this article.
Of course, in reality you may eat the food after reading this article. Changing your eating habits isn’t going to happen by simply reading my blog article (even if it is a great one!).
But after reading this article about how to stop emotional eating you’ll:
- Be ready to PAUSE before you eat the food
- Notice what you are FEELING & THINKING before you eat the food
- Be more aware of the HABIT CYCLES so you can have the right mindset to take different actions next time
I’m emphasizing the right mindset because a critical part of Eating Enlightenment philosophy is realizing having the right mindset comes before appropriate action.
At the bottom of this post I’ll go through some common ways you can stop emotional eating. But these strategies will only work if you have the right mindset.
I know this concept of ‘mindset’ might sound strange. Why not just give a list of strategies?
Strategies are great but if you are missing the mindset then you won’t be able to think creatively or adapt. There’s no perfect strategy for every situation.
But if you can see the mindset guiding the actions, then you’ll be able to adapt to life situations on the fly. And even though you might be stuck at home quarantined with a more regular schedule, life is crazy nonetheless and being able to adapt is key to success!
In this next section I’ll cover the mindset before you eat. This section will also answer questions like “what is emotional hunger”.
Then in the second half of this post – after we discuss mindset – I will cover strategies to stop emotional eating. We’ll cover strategies and techniques like:
- Start a food diary
- Eat a healthy diet
- Hide a common offender
Ok, ready to learn about mindset? Let’s dive in.
The “Before” Mindset To Stop Emotional Eating
In the diagram above we have 3 parts, which together make up your habits:
For example, you have a habit of brushing your teeth every morning, right?
- Cue: alarm clock, morning time
- Routine: brushing teeth
- Reward: not feeling guilty and instead having a nice clean feeling
When your alarm clock rings in the morning, you nearly automatically start to brush your teeth right?
You don’t even have to think about it.
But when you first started brushing your teeth as a child, you probably had your parents remind you to brush your teeth. Back then you didn’t have an automatic habit.
But after you start brushing your teeth, after a few repetitions, you probably noticed a nice clean feeling in your mouth.
This nice clean feeling (along with your parents not bugging you) served as a reward. A few more times of parents reminding you + reward and you developed a nice automatic habit.
Now the alarm and being morning triggers you to start brushing your teeth. You hardly need to think about it. You just brush your teeth automatically.
These are how all your habits work, including emotional eating.
The Three Parts To An Automatic Habit
The key mindset to stop emotional eating is to be aware of these 3 parts (cue, routine, reward) which make up the ‘habit laws’.
Habit laws are like the law of gravity. They are always there.
Gravity is everywhere. There’s nothing you can do to stop gravity or make gravity go away.
If you want to be an astronaut and launch a rocket to space, you have to obey the laws of gravity.
In a similarly omnipotent way, habit laws rule over your emotional eating.
If you have an emotional eating habit, then you must:
- Understand the laws of habits to get rid of your emotional eating habit.
- Use the laws of habits to make new, beneficial habits.
Please take special note of steps 1 and then 2.
You can’t just change your habits out of thin air, which unfortunately is what most people try to do. You have to be wise about the process.
Understand Your Habits With Awareness To Begin Releasing Those Habits.
When you first begin to change your habits you might feel very excited!
But hold that temptation for now (we’ll harness it later). Patience and wisdom is how we want to begin.
In fact, excitement can actually be a big hindrance to stopping your emotional eating habits! So slow down there, partner!
The reason we want to start with understanding (instead of immediate action taking) is because understanding leads to success.
For example, here’s what may happen if you start by taking action first (without understanding your laws of habits).
Let’s say you read another emotional eating blog article.
You get very excited about the first step:
- Going on a walk instead of eating.
- Reaching out to a friend instead of eating.
- Journaling instead of eating.
You walk, journal and talk to your friend for a few days …
But then a snag hits you, something, someone just pisses you off. Deeply. Could be something big or small. Doesn’t matter.
Then …Bam, wham, ka-chow!
Food is in your mouth. You didn’t even have a chance to say ‘screw journaling I’m going to stuff my face right now and I don’t even care!’
You didn’t even have a chance to say that, and then you’re eating bag after bag, spending god knows how much money, stuffing your belly till it’s far beyond normal, stretched, and stretched and stretched …
Can you relate? Have you ever lost control around food?
I mean just consider for a second that 40 million Americans set a New Year’s Resolution every year to lose weight… and then quit on average 1 month later.
Maybe the reason we see so much action taking without long term behavior change is because people are starting without understanding their habits.
If you have lost control around food, then you need to understand the importance of understanding your habits before you try to change them.
Here are 3 additional reasons why understanding your habits first before changing them is ideal:
- There’s nothing at stake. There’s no failure. You are not trying anything like journaling and then failing.
- Awareness is simple and easy. There’s no willpower needed.
- You can learn about the laws of habits and understand how they work before attempting to change
Ok, are you ready to put your excitement about stopping your emotional eating habits on pause?
I hope so, because patience and awareness, these are the real keys to ending emotional eating forever!
Now that you’re ready to study your emotional eating habits, let’s give an example for you to understand more tangibly.
Why Do I Eat When I’m Sad?
Let’s talk about sadness, because that’s a common emotion associated with emotional eating.
It’s sad that we struggle so terribly with food.
It’s sad that other people have normal lives with food while we have to truly, deeply struggle with food.
It’s sad that people are dying right now in hospital beds, feeling like they are drowning because covid-19 has cut off their air supply, yet family members aren’t allowed to be by their bedsides as they breathe their last breath …
The ancient Greeks said that ‘life was a tragedy’ and it’s not hard to see why.
So let’s say you are feeling sad.
The question is: why do I eat when I’m sad?
Let’s answer that question in context of the 3 habit laws.
Remember the three forces that make up the habit laws – cue, routine and reward?
In this case, sadness is the cue.
Eating is the routine.
And … What’s the reward?
What do you think the reward is for you?
Every person will have a different answer here for their respective food cravings …
When I work with clients individually, oftentimes I’ll use their language to talk about their rewards.
Here are some ways (using words from my clients) food can be rewarding you:
- Distraction: food might be distracting you from sadness
- Numbing: food might be numbing you from the feeling of sadness
- Soothing: food can help soothe the painful feelings of sadness
There could be other rewards too, but they all sort of sound the same.
Food helps reduce or alleviate the sadness, or other negative emotions, in some way.
Said differently, food makes you feel safe (temporarily).
Of course, the reward is temporary, but that doesn’t matter to your survival brain.
Survival Brain Versus Higher Self
Your survival brain is an important concept to go along with your understanding of habit laws.
Your survival brain gets turned on whenever it believes there is danger.
And here’s the thing – you don’t have to be under much stress for your survival brain to think that it’s in danger.
Here are some common everyday scenarios which might trigger your survival brain emotions:
- Lots of traffic
- A project deadline
- A screaming child
- Weight loss (yes, weight loss can trigger feelings of hunger, and having hunger can lead to feeling unsafe)
Now once your survival brain gets ‘triggered’, there is only one thing that your survival brain cares about:
Your survival brain will actually shut down your thinking brain so that you focus on survival.
For example, if you were hiking through the forest and ran into a bear, your survival brain would kick into high gear.
You would not think “what type of bear is this?”, no.
Your survival brain would actually shut down your thinking brain and make you only focus on surviving – which in the case of the bear would be running very fast, very far away.
In these situations of danger your survival brain is only concerned with the immediate present moment. It doesn’t care about the future.
The same thing is true about eating. If you are stressed, your survival brain shuts down your thinking mind and mindful eating becomes impossible or becomes an afterthought.
What does this have to do with emotional eating?
Your Survival Brain Is The Cue.
Let’s tie all the dots together right now.
When you feel emotions of being stressed out or being in danger, or even other negative emotions …
(even in minor situations like traffic, a child screaming, or too much work without enough emotional support) …
Your survival brain can act as the ‘cue’.
And what does the survival brain want?
Your survival brain just wants to feel safe – no matter what. Negative emotions make you feel unsafe.
Your survival brain just wants to feel safe.
It doesn’t care about the future. It doesn’t care about hunger. Weight loss is not even considered at all.
That’s why people get confused. They have no hunger. They just ate a big meal and there’s no hunger.
But then they begin eating out of control, without any hunger.
It can be baffling.
But when you see how the survival brain is using stressful eating to … get rid of the stress … then things begin to make sense.
In many ways, a stress eater eats to reduce stress.
So what makes you feel safe?
Food. Ice cream. Chocolate. Chips. Junk food. Any food, even ‘healthy’ foods like rice and beans, can be the thing that makes you feel safe.
Food gives you that reward.
You’ve been emotionally eating for years, right?
The first step towards an emotional eating habit probably started when you were younger …
You felt upset. You didn’t feel safe. So you turned to food for comfort.
You didn’t know what to do.
Your survival brain took over. Your survival instincts made you eat food.
You felt better.
Cue. Routine. Reward. And the habit of stress eating was born.
Rinse and repeat a few hundred, or thousand, times and you realize why these chains are so hard to break.
What Is Emotional Hunger?
Other emotions besides sadness and stress can be the triggers for emotional eating. Other common emotions that can set off the survival brain include:
- Boredom: with all of these distractions and social media these days, your brain can feel in unfamiliar territory when there’s nothing to do. Unfamiliarity can feel like danger.
- Exhaustion: If you are well rested and supported then the most minor of incidents – an email, a text message, random bad luck – don’t bother you. But if you are exhausted then even minor situations can seem dangerous to your survival brain.
- People: Whether you avoid people or go to parties, people can make you feel in danger. The idea of being rejected or judged can easily trigger the survival brain to go into panic mode.
Ok, we’ve covered the mindset stuff.
(if you want more info, check out this help guide)
Now we are ready to talk about the strategies to stop emotional eating.
How Can I Stop Eating Emotionally?
I am about to list a bunch of different strategies you can utilize to stop emotional eating and return to better eating based on the cues of physical hunger.
Let’s remember the mindset piece.
We have to first understand our emotional eating habits and how negative emotions make us feel unsafe.
We have to see that normal everyday situations cause stress, fatigue, feelings of being overwhelmed, etc …
And stress triggers the survival brain to switch on. The survival brain, once on, gets tunnel vision. It only cares about feeling safe.
The survival brain then goes automatically to food, which for years has given you a temporary feeling of being safe.
If we want new habits …
We need to make sure our new habits:
Make us feel safer, calmer, and more well-rested.
If food as comfort is driven by feeling unsafe initially, and then reinforced by rewards which temporarily mimic the feeling of safety …
Then finding new habits which make us feel safe is the key.
This is the right mindset we must know before we start taking action to change our habits.
If you try the strategies listed below, great. But they won’t work unless you end up feeling safer, calmer, and more well-rested.
If you can try each strategy one by one …
And take very careful note of how they make you feel …
You’ll be able to identify which behaviors make you feel most safe, calm and well rested.
You’ll probably need to try several strategies to figure out which ones are best for you.
But – if you can find a handful of strategies to practice –
You can end emotional eating, or binge eating.
It’ll take practice.
But if you can identify when you are in survival mode …
And use these habits to feel safe …
Then the feeling of safety will be your new reward (instead of food giving you that feeling).
So in many ways, what we are doing is simply switching out the routine.
I hope you see why learning about the concepts of habit laws and the survival brain is so necessary.
(And also please keep in mind my recommendation that you first study your emotional eating habits before you start any new action)
Ok, let’s dive into some strategies to stop emotional eating (and binge eating):
Strategies To Stop Emotional Eating
- Keep A Journal: writing can be a powerful form of acknowledgement. Simply writing down that you’re feeling angry or sad can discharge some of the energy around your emotion.
- Yoga, Meditation, or Mindfulness: I teach a relaxing live stream yoga class Sundays for people on my email list. There are many other videos and guides online. These activities can help you feel safer.
- Call A Friend: Nothing beats this. If you have someone who can ground you, and doesn’t mind your craziness, talk to them!
- Remove Visual Temptation: When I work with clients I do not recommend that they have no triggering foods in the house. Sometimes the absence of food can be triggering too. But, I do recommend putting the trigger foods in a place where you don’t see them all the time. So if your binge go-to food is cookies, see if you can put the cookies in the pantry instead of on the counter. Of course there are exceptions, like ice cream is hard to put away, but it’s a good strategy for dry foods.
- Eat Satisfying Meals: This is less of a strategy and more of an important pillar. You have to eat enough food and feel satisfied in order to beat emotional eating! Physical hunger is a biological need that you need to meet, in order to feel safe.
- Learn From Setbacks: Setbacks will happen. But how do you handle your setbacks? If you can identify when you lost control, that’s a great lesson to learn. If you can also pinpoint how you felt insecure or didn’t eat enough, you will be well on your way to beating emotional eating.
- Go On A Short Walk: The advice I give clients (in the context of survival brain, mindsets, etc.) is to go on a walk first. If they want to still binge after, they can. 99% of them don’t.
- Try New Things: Listen, at some point you have to be willing to try some activities that you haven’t thought of before. Whenever you try new things there are 2 things that’ll happen. One option is you won’t like the new thing. The other option is that you will like it. You might not like walking, but maybe you like listening to music. You’ll have to be willing to try new behaviors to see what makes you feel good and safe.
With all being said, I’m going to wrap up this article.
Remember to be aware of the emotions of your survival brain.
First you have to recognize when your survival brain is taking you over.
You have to see the habit loop in action, how the survival brain makes you eat food for the reward of safety.
You have to see this, firsthand, how your physical hunger cues are totally ignored by your survival brain which just wants to eat to feel safe.
Then, you need to take action to disrupt the cycle.
You’ll need to try a variety of techniques to discover the ones you truly like, that make you feel a little more safe.
Got any more questions?
Let me know in the comments.