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How can I avoid emotional eating?

On Saturday, October 4, 2008 by dotFIT experts

Question:  I eat for every reason...Happy, sad, tired, nervous, lonely, you name it.  I don't feel like I have any control over my eating at times.  Is there anything that will help me stop eating when I am not hungry?

Answer: Emotional eating is a common yet complex problem which is a learned behavior from childhood.

The first step in controlling and changing emotional eating is to learn the high risk situation(s) that cause you to eat when you are not hungry.  Then create a plan of action you can use when that high risk situation happens.  For example, if you know you overeat when you are tired, plan to take a nap.  If you grab food whenever you are under stress, then plan to deal with the stress in ways other than food such as taking a walk, taking 10 deep breaths or going to see a friend.

Second, eat scheduled meals and snacks to maintain your blood sugar levels and avoid physical hunger.  By eating balanced, healthy foods on a regular schedule you may not feel the physical urge to eat during high risk situations. Avoid getting hungry and low blood sugar by eating combinations of whole foods that are good sources of protein, complex carbohydrate, fat, and fiber.  An example of a healthy snack would be an apple with nut butter or natural nuts, or cottage cheese and whole wheat crackers.

The third step is to make it difficult to access comfort foods and foods that sabotage your efforts.  Do not keep them around and you won’t be able to eat them when you are most vulnerable.  Common comfort foods are processed snacks, junk foods, sweets, or ice cream.

The following are techniques and strategies to help cope with emotional eating.

  • Identify the root your emotional eating such as childhood influences
  • Manage your physical environment at home and around you to reduce food cues. For example, keep healthy, low-risk foods in sight and within reach and high-risk foods out of site or out of the house. Be aware of people who trigger your emotional eating.
  • Manage your internal environment, or your thoughts feelings, emotions, and food cues that trigger high-risk behavior. Be aware of the time, your feelings and mood, what caused you to feel this way, and foods associated with episodes of emotional eating.
  • Plan for high risk situations that trigger emotional eating. Formulate a plan of action other than food.
  • Learn to "ride out" the immediate urge or impulse to eat when you are not hungry. Before you reach for your emotional comfort foods plan to procrastinate by doing something else first.  This gives you time to get over the urge to eat. When you have the urge or craving to eat and you are not hungry, postpone giving in to the urge for a while by redirecting your attention to something else.  Ninety percent of the time you will overcome the urge.
  • Learn to think positive when you start to fall in to a spiral of negative thought.  Positive thinking and a positive attitude may prevent emotional eating.
  • Learn to break the chain of compulsive overeating. If you find yourself with the bag of cookies in front of the television, get up and throw the cookies away.  It is never too late to stop the process from happening.

Below are some  great books on emotional overeating:

  • Feeding the Hungry Heart, by Geneen Roth
  • Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating, by Geneen Roth
  • Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole
  • LEARN Program by Kelly Brownell
  • Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink, PH.D.

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