When you’re sad, stressed or your joints are aching, it might seem like digging into a pint (or half-gallon) of ice cream and not stopping till you reach the bottom will make you feel better. But that’s going to undermine your efforts to avoid inflammatory foods and weight gain. Breaking this kind of pattern may take physical or mental interventions – or both. We asked a registered dietitian and a psychologist how to break the cycle of emotional eating.
Know what’s driving your hunger. “Physical hunger develops gradually and almost any food sounds good, including a chicken breast and steamed broccoli. It’s satisfied when the stomach is full,” says Torey Armul, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Emotional hunger comes on suddenly and feels urgent or overwhelming. People crave a specific food and aren’t satisfied until they feel almost ill.”
Prepare in advance. Recognize events and emotions that trigger emotional eating. “Often there’s a predicable triggering event, such as a doctor’s visit or going to work on Monday when the weekend feels far away,” says Armul. “Prepare for those times by building in something to look forward to that isn’t food – a massage or a call with a friend.”
Try “cognitive restructuring.” Identify the inner dialogue you use to permit emotional eating; for example, “I’ve been good, so I deserve this,” says James J. Annesi, PhD, a psychologist and vice president of research and evaluation at the YMCA of Atlanta. “When you recognize that internal dialogue, mentally yell ‘Stop!’ and replace that statement with one prepared in advance, such as, ‘It’s important to stay consistent.’”
Get moving. “Physical activity improves mood, and improving mood improves one’s ability to self-regulate,” Annesi says. A study he led, recently published in Journal of Physical Activity & Health, found that exercise predicted long-term weight loss by reducing emotional eating. “This isn’t about burning calories,” he says, “and the amount of physical activity needed to affect emotional eating is low; for example, walking for 15 minutes or more two to three times a week.”
Get comfortable with negative feelings. “Our culture teaches us to try and immediately get rid of bad feelings, but an inability to let yourself be sad or upset often leads to trying to fix those feelings with food,” Armul says. “Instead, let yourself feel and recognize the emotion for a short time. Once you identify and ‘sit’ with it, it tends to dissipate.” —EMILY DELZELL