Let me start by assuring you that everyone overeats from time to time. When it’s Thanksgiving. When Grandma makes her famous blueberry pie. When you can’t decide between the pizza and the gnocchi at your favorite Italian restaurant, so you decide to order both. When dinner is delayed by two hours because you’ve been stuck in traffic.
But emotional overeating isn’t about our “eyes being bigger than our stomachs” or feeling stuffed because we were starving. It’s about using food to cope with uncomfortable feelings, then usually feeling shame and beating ourselves up afterward.
As a certified eating disorder registered dietitian, here are seven tips I recommend to anyone looking to shift out of the frustrating emotional eating pattern:
1. Discover mindfulness.
Don’t skip this step — it’s the most important! Mindfulness is awakening to the present moment with acceptance and without judgment. It’s as simple as it sounds, but it does require practice. After all, most of us live our lives on autopilot without ever paying attention to the current moment.
Mindfulness is a prerequisite for managing emotional eating, because it’s necessary for recognizing what we’re feeling in a current moment and learning to cope in a different way. It also helps us become more aware of whether or not we're physically or emotionally hungry.
Breath work, yoga, and meditation are powerful avenues to gaining mindfulness skills.
2. Practice self-compassion.
Usually, when we overeat, we beat ourselves up for it. And we don't like those feelings of shame, so we distract ourselves from them. How? By continuing to eat!
When we’re self-compassionate, we're actually far more likely to make a change in our behavior.
Being self-compassionate means you treat yourself like you would a friend or a loved one. If you slip up, you're supportive and understanding rather than cruel and angry. You explore what you need to make a change rather than berating and punishing.
3. Know your triggers.
Think about when you tend to overeat. Is it always after you speak to a certain person? Sunday nights before a busy workweek? When you go on Instagram and see a post that makes you feel inadequate? When you creep on your ex’s Facebook page?
Many of us think if we imagine a situation, we’re going to will it to happen. Really, it’s kind of the opposite.
Knowing your triggers will give you a one-up on emotional eating so you can either avoid triggering situations or make sure you’re armed the next time you’re vulnerable.
4. Find healthier ways to cope with difficult feelings.
Emotional eating may have helped you cope with overwhelming feelings in the past, but it’s no longer serving you.
Consider what you’ve felt during those moments that was unbearable: Sadness? Anxiety? Rejection? Loneliness? Inadequacy? Then, consider what you’ve needed in those moments when eating has comforted you. Support? Reassurance? Love? Company? Distraction?
Painful feelings are a part of life, and they’re going to come up again and again. It’s important for us to learn different coping mechanisms so we don’t fear them so much. When we feel equipped to experience the difficult stuff, we can live our lives with more ease.
Spend some time writing down alternative coping mechanisms, so you’re equipped for the next time you feel compelled to raid the fridge in response to uncomfortable feelings. Sometimes, your feelings are going to be so strong that it could help to distract yourself — think watching a show or engaging in an activity that takes all your concentration.
Other times, you’re going to want to gently “go through” the feelings in a self-supportive way. For example, practice self-compassion while writing out some of your thoughts and feelings, going for a walk and listening to music, or calling a supportive friend.
5. Learn to "HALT" before eating.
Once you’re gotten in the habit of using mindfulness, use the HALT acronym when you notice the urge to eat emotionally: Ask, "Am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?" (Angry and lonely could be replaced with many other emotions, whether it's hurt, sad, anxious, bored, or guilty.)
As you become more in touch with your body, you'll be able to better tell if you truly are hungry, or if your hunger is for something else. Similarly, if we're tired, we seek high-fat, high-sugar foods for quick energy. HALTing can be a healthy check-in before going to the cupboard.
6. Don't restrict yourself after overeating.
If you restrict yourself, like dieting or over-exercising, you're setting yourself up for overeating. That's why it's so important to eat regular meals to shift away from the restrict/overeat cycle.
If you overeat, don’t punish yourself with starvation. Tune into your body and eat again when you’re hungry.
7. Seek out the right foods.
Overeating can sometimes be our body's way of seeking nutrients of which we're deprived. A craving for sweets is often a sign we're dehydrated or lacking in vitamin C. A craving for salty foods might mean we're missing calcium, sodium, magnesium, and zinc. Low energy combined with insatiable appetite might mean you're low in iron or B12.
Make sure you're getting enough of these important micronutrients, as well as satiating macronutrients such as high-fiber carbs, healthy fats, and protein. Not only do these fill us up, they prevent blood sugar crashes that often result in overeating.
Finally, consider working with a therapist or nutritional professional on your journey. It can be far more challenging to make these changes on your own, and you’re more likely to succeed with the support and advice of a professional.