4 Steps to Combat Emotional Eating

August 5, 2020

As humans, we have an emotional relationship with food. There is no denying it. Food represents a connection to others. It’s part of our culture, our family lives, and some of our favorite memories. To ignore an emotional connection with food would be to ignore a part of what it means to be human. 

The key is to distinguish between our positive emotional connection to food and our reliance on food to help distract us from uncomfortable emotions.

What exactly is emotional eating? 

Sometimes emotional eating is obvious. Perhaps you had a rough day at work or a disagreement with a loved one and you reach for a candy bar to calm you down.

Yet oftentimes emotional eating isn’t as obvious. We can be so out of touch with our bodies that we don’t even stop to think at all and instead just act on the impulse we feel to eat without ever pondering why. 

Emotional eating can happen when you are feeling uncomfortable or trying to avoid something. It can happen when you’re stressed, sad, or overwhelmed. You can even emotionally eat out of “boredom”, mindlessly snacking while watching TV or scrolling on your phone. What they all boil down to is eating not out of true hunger but from a place of emotion. 

These foods may comfort us in that moment, but in reality, they will do nothing to help us process, heal, or make peace with the emotion itself.

So what can we do?

Its really about becoming more mindful and taking the time to tune in to ourselves. 

When you feel the impulse to eat take a moment to check-in. Ask yourself if what you are feeling is truly hunger. If it is, then EAT! Denying yourself food when your body needs it is never the right choice and will actually only add to an already complicated emotional relationship with food. Always honor your hunger!

But if you can be honest with yourself that it’s not real hunger and instead your desire to eat is coming from a place of discomfort, dig a little deeper. 

What is causing you to feel uncomfortable? 

Is it sadness, anger, fear? Are you lonely, bored, or overwhelmed? 

Sit with that emotion for a moment. Close your eyes and ask yourself what you really need right now. Identify how you can address that emotion in a non-food way!

Let’s look at an example…

-Its 10 pm and you have already had dinner. You are watching tv and you start to feel the impulse to snack but you know you are actually still full from your dinner. 

-You stop and ask yourself is it hunger or am I just uncomfortable in this moment?

-You acknowledge that you are uncomfortable. 

-You dig deeper and pinpoint why.

-You discover that you are actually just feeling lonely.

-You think what you can do to address the loneliness in a non-food way. 

-You decide to text a friend asking about their day and plan a zoom meetup for later in the week. 

That is a helpful way to process and deal with an emotion, rather than ignoring it by reaching for the bag of popcorn. 

To solidify the experience you should make a note of this somewhere.  It can be an actual journal or even just a quick sentence in the notes section of your phone including what the emotion was and how you addressed it. This can help you to build your own little arsenal of tools to combat emotional eating when the urge arises. As you find options for dealing with different emotions you can have a running list of non-food ways to cope and process! 

In summary…

When you are feeling the impulse to eat stop and follow these steps. 

  1. Check-in with yourself and ask if it is hunger or uncomfortableness?
  2. Dig deeper into what is making you feel uncomfortable. Identify the real emotion.
  3. Address the emotion in a non-food way. 
  4. Journal or take note of the experience.  

Lastly, just know that emotional eating is a habit that many of us form from childhood and have been acting upon for years, so it will take some time to unlearn it and that’s okay. Every time you opt to pinpoint the actual emotion your feeling and address it with a helpful non-food action is a win in your books!

Is emotional eating something you deal with? Do you have your own tips for addressing certain emotions in a non-food way? Please comment and share below. And if you’d like additional support with your emotional eating patterns, email me at hayleycook@mahanhealth.com. I’d love to support you on your journey toward optimal health!

written by:


  • Hayley Cook

    I am a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach who is passionate about helping others on their path towards wellness. As a teen, I struggled with constant GI and hormonal issues that had me missing school and missing out on life. Upon taking a deep dive into holistic health, I was able to find that proper nutrition and self-care could reverse the effects of my own autoimmune condition.

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