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Our Ties to Food Are Strong

We must eat to survive. But over time, we’ve found pleasure in our food choices. Eating during times of stress can help ease emotions. But the binge-guilt-binge cycle that can follow gets in the way of our efforts to eat healthy. Here are some tips and tricks to help you stop "eating your feelings."

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Know What's Happening

Some people eat less when they're under stress. Others need the distraction of comfort food or fattening snacks when things aren't going right. Because the effect is temporary, you may find yourself eating when you’re not hungry, or without thinking about it. That can lead to unhealthy decisions. So always be aware of what you're eating and why you're eating it.

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Keep a Food Diary

Write down everything you eat during the day. Also note what time you ate it and where you were when you did. A food diary is a great tool to help you track your habits and patterns. Are you snacking between meals? Is food a constant companion? You’ll start to see how healthy -- or unhealthy -- your food choices are. Better yet, it will help you set goals that can really help. 

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Check if You're Really Hungry

If you just ate a big meal and are still reaching for snacks, ask yourself: Are you hungry, or are your emotions causing the cravings? You may want to do something different until the urge passes, like take a walk or call a friend. Or you could try to drink some water. Your body may be trying to tell you it’s dehydrated.

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Get Support

Make sure you have family and friends who can keep you positive and focused in times of stress. It can really help you stick to a healthy lifestyle. Research shows that people with high-stress jobs have better mental health when they have strong support networks.

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Focus on Your Goals

Don’t get too hung up on things like calorie counts, menu planning, and watching the scale. It might make you lose track of the lifestyle changes you're after. In fact, being stuck in a food rut can lead to more cravings. Don’t be afraid to try new foods, or different ways of preparing old favorites. Make sure to reward yourself with a healthy treat if you reach a key goal.   

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Don't Tempt Yourself

Remove the urge to snack on unhealthy foods by keeping them out of your home. Worried about making bad choices when you shop? Stick to a strict grocery list of healthy foods, and never visit the grocery store when you’re hungry or in a bad mood.

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Make Healthy Choices

Have an abundant supply of good-for-you nibblers at the ready if you get hungry between meals. Things like fruit, vegetables with a low-fat dip, nuts, or even unbuttered popcorn are perfect. Or try low-fat versions of the foods you already enjoy.

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Don't Be So Hard on Yourself

Don’t obsess over your failures. Instead, learn from your mistakes. Don’t let one or two missteps create more stress. Instead, focus on the big picture and recognize how you can break your stress-eating cycle.

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Make Substitutes

If you’re craving pizza, try putting tomato sauce, veggies, and part-skim mozzarella on pita bread. Really want tacos? Make a taco salad instead, using beans, tomatoes, cheese, and hot sauce. If you have a sweet tooth, try “fun size” versions of the real thing or mini ice cream bars as a substitute. You’ll still get the pleasure of your favorite foods without wrecking your diet.

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When the urge to eat hits you, try some relaxation techniques. Mindful meditation can ease stress and help fight the impulse that triggers stress eating. Choose a quiet place to sit and observe your thoughts and your breathing. Don't judge how you feel. Just notice what you're thinking and ease your focus back to your breathing.

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Work Up a Sweat

A good workout triggers your body to make chemicals called endorphins that interact with your brain to calm and relax you. What's more, it'll make you feel good about yourself. Worried about wear and tear on your body? Try yoga or tai chi. They're both low-impact ways to work up a good sweat.

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Talk It Out

Don’t be afraid to discuss your eating habits with your doctor or a mental health professional. They may be able to provide therapy and tips to help you identify what’s causing your stress. They can also give you ideas on how to make better food choices and reach your healthy goals.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 06/11/2022 Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 11, 2022


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Psychology Today: “Why Do We Eat?”

Mayo Clinic: “Weight Loss: Gain control of emotional eating," "Mood and Food: Break The Link," "Mediation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress."

Harvard Medical School: “Why stress causes people to overeat,” "“Why keep a food diary?” "“Exercising to relax.”

Weight Watchers: “Seven ways to take care of emotional eating,” "How to outsmart stress-eating.”

Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 11, 2022

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.