Getting Over Overeating

5 ways to help break the emotional eating cycle

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on May 12, 2005
4 min read

Experts estimate that 75% of us overeat not because we are hungry, but rather in response to feelings. And when our eating is spurred by emotions, we tend to consume mostly junk food.

What's a person to do in our food-centric society? Do we need more willpower to overcome the food images that surround us everywhere we go? How do we resist the temptation to "supersize" when the price is so appealing?

Eating is so much more than satisfying hunger. We eat for many reasons, from meeting our basic nutritional needs to celebrating with friends and family. We eat when we are lonely, unhappy, stressed, or because of poor self-esteem. Some of us are closet eaters who overeat when everyone else is in bed. As children, we learned that food can bring comfort -- at least temporarily -- and we still turn to food for reassurance.

Emotional eaters use food to nurture a deeper, emotional need. Their emotional attachment to food becomes a crutch to help them cope with everyday stressors. People who use food to heal emotions usually do so when they're not feeling good about themselves, and the result is usually unwanted weight gain. The excess weight leads to more negative feelings, triggering the cycle over and over again.

If you can identify the things that trigger your overeating, you can learn to substitute healthful behaviors that help you manage emotional issues without overeating.

Certain situations tend to trigger emotional eating. You were doing fine until:

  • You went to the family reunion.
  • You went on vacation.
  • Your mother kept pushing food onto your plate.
  • You were so bored.
  • You were celebrating your anniversary.
  • You quit smoking.
  • It was that time of the month.
  • You were having a migraine.
  • You broke up with your boyfriend.

And the list goes on and on. You need to be able to identify your own personal triggers that push you to overeat so you can break the cycle and eat in response to hunger, not feelings.

Identifying eating triggers is the first step. Now, you have to break the emotional eating habit and adopt healthier habits to keep you from using food to soothe yourself. Here are some more beneficial (and calorie-free) behaviors that can help you break free of emotional eating.

1. Exercise. Not only does exercise burn calories, but it also helps relieve those anxious feelings. A brisk walk will help you pound your troubles into the pavement while releasing endorphins, natural substances in your body that can help elevate your mood. Some experts recommend that you start with eight to 10 minutes of exercise when you first get out of bed. The early-morning endorphin rush can help you get through the day.

2. Buddy up. Stop by our community boards and find yourself a buddy if you don't already have one in your life. A supportive person is absolutely necessary when you're coping with the challenges of emotional eating and weight loss. Let friends and family provide you with the comfort you sought in food. Try to have at least three people you can talk to and lean on when times are tough.

3. Develop a routine. Eat three meals a day, or six small meals if that's what you prefer. The important thing is to find what works for your life and stick to it. A regimen of regular meals and planned snacks will minimize impulsive eating and help you to realize there is a time and a place to eat. Practice eating only at mealtimes and during planned snack times until this becomes a habit. (It's always a good idea to refrain from eating after dinner.)

4. Keep a journal. Track your emotions to determine what triggers your overeating. Jot down how you are feeling when you get the urge to splurge. Where are you? Who are you with? What are your thoughts? Your journal will provide clues to the reasons for your eating behavior.

5.Substitutes for food. Make a list of things you would enjoy doing instead of eating. Ideally, these should be activities that distract you while burning calories. But even if you choose to read a book, that's better than mindless eating. Keep your list handy, and when you start to reach for food in response to one of your triggers, try one of your activities instead. Your activities might include:

  • Rent a movie.
  • Call a friend.
  • Go online to our community message boards and chat with friends.
  • Treat yourself to a new CD.
  • Read a good book or magazine.
  • Go outside and take a walk.
  • Soak in a bubble bath.
  • Sign up for a yoga or Pilates class.
  • Learn the art of deep-breathing exercises.
  • Do a little weeding in the yard.
  • Wash the car.
  • Clean out a closet.
  • Play cards or a board game.
  • Talk to a friend.
  • Do housework, laundry, or yard work.
  • Wash the car.
  • Get a manicure, pedicure, or massage.
  • Write a letter or an email to an old friend.

If none of these methods helps you get a handle on your emotional eating, you may need to seek professional help to learn some coping mechanisms.

Old habits are hard to break, but you can do it by making small and gradual changes that help you listen to your stomach and eat when you are hungry. And don't forget to reward yourself for your accomplishments. Positive reinforcement is the key to continued success.

Keep your weight-loss goals in focus, and before long, you'll find you have replaced those overeating habits with more healthful behaviors. Be good to yourself: you deserve it!