What to do Instead of Emotional Eating
Ways to change up your strategy
Emotional eating can include all types of eating including eating for celebration, eating as a form of procrastination, eating out of boredom, stress, or eating to help soothe an underlying emotion such as loneliness or anger.
When people come to me, they are not usually worried about their eating in celebration! Most of the people who come to a dietitian for help with their emotional eating are struggling with how often or how intense they feel their eating is as a result of boredom or strong feelings.
The thing about emotional eating is that it is not bad! However, it can be problematic or troublesome if it is the only way we cope with challenging emotions. Our goal in bringing awareness to our eating behaviours and to help discover what to do instead of emotional eating.
Where do you think emotional eating might show up for you?
Let me give you some examples to think about:
- At the end of the day once the kids are in bed
- When you are studying or have a task to do that you have been dreading
- Friday night when you don’t have plans
- Sunday night before going back to a busy week of work
- Before you have to have a difficult conversation
- When it feels like no one else understands what you are going through
- After getting disappointing news
- When you are stressed about all the things that have to get done
Tips for identifying your emotional eating behaviours and ideas for what to do instead:
Step 1 – Identify when
For many of us, emotional eating happens at similar times in our days or in similar situations.
If you are unsure if there are any patterns to your eating, try paying attention to the why of your eating. You do not need to track your food, but it may be helpful to take note of why you are eating when you are eating.
Remember, if you are hungry! Eat! This isn’t a strategy for avoiding eating, but rather a tool to identify when emotional eating or stress eating might be happening.
Step 2 – Learn from it
Now that you know when this type of eating is taking place, explore why you think it might be happening.
For example, when I was in university I used to procrastinate with snacks. This was fine every once in a while, but when it happened too often it was making me not feel good – and my grocery bill was getting really expensive!
When I looked for what to do instead of emotional eating, what I learned was that short breaks worked well for me. I could go for a 10 minute walk, stand outside in the cold air to wake up, or go talk to a friend for a 5 minute break. I also started blocking my study time into 20-40 minute blocks so that I only had to focus for a specific period of time.
Another example is rewarding ourselves with food after getting through a tough day. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but other ideas for rewards could be quiet time for you, watching your favourite show, painting your nails, or having a 5 minute dance party to find some joy at the end of the day.
Step 3 – Give yourself options
As I mentioned before, emotional eating is okay! We all do it. However, you don’t want food to be the only way you manage stress or your more challenging emotions.
To increase your options, brainstorm a list of alternate things you could try and make then easy and accessible. You could try putting them in one location around where you think you will need them. These items might include a good book, headphones for music, your sneakers, fidget toys, a word search, affirmations, a journal, or whatever you choose.
Step 4 – Just try it
When you catch yourself wanting to use food to cope with an emotion or a situation, pull out your list of ideas and just try one! Remember, after you try you can always eat if you still want to.
Not all of your ideas will work. You might find some strategies that work better than others or work in different circumstances, but either way, just keep trying! This will help you add strategies to your tool kit in addition to using food.
Want to read more about emotional eating and what to do instead? Try these other dietitian articles.
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Disordered Eating, Emotional Eating & Sports Nutrition
Fitness enthusiast and lover of all things food, Jana is passionate about helping her clients improve their relationship with food and their body. She is a strong, motivational leader. Jana also offers the balance of a warm, supportive coaching style to nudge her clients from their comfort zone while feeling safe and supported. She specializes in mental health, eating disorders, body image and sports nutrition.