10 Ways to Break Up With Emotional Eating for Good

 by Cynthia Sass, MPH, MA, RD, CSSD

Even with all of the nutrition know-how, resources and willpower under the sun, when emotions take over, your healthy-eating intentions can dissolve in a flash. The good news is if stress, sadness, boredom or even happiness has been driving your eating choices, you can break the cycle.


Even with all of the nutrition know-how, resources and willpower under the sun, when emotions take over, your healthy-eating intentions can dissolve in a flash. The good news is if stress, sadness, boredom or even happiness has been driving your eating choices, you can break the cycle. Use these 10 expert and research-backed strategies to regain your balance and split up with emotional eating for good.

1. Watch Happy Films (Or Partner Up for Sad Ones)

To thwart emotional eating, use your Netflix account to watch happy films rather than sad ones. According to 2015 Cornell University research published in a Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine research letter, moviegoers who watched tearjerkers ate up to 55 percent more popcorn than those who watched funny films, both in a lab and in a mall movie theater. "Sad feelings make us feel lonely," says Susan Albers, Psy.D. So if you do watch a film with a not-so-happy theme, she advises doing so with a friend or loved one. "Connecting with someone else can alleviate the desire to pacify your feelings with food," says Albers. And if watching alone is inevitable, she advises wrapping yourself up in a blanket. "Cocooning can make you feel like you are in a warm embrace, so you won't need to soothe with food."

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2. Switch Your Fan Focus

Whether you're a fan of football or "Dancing With the Stars," research shows that fans who experience vicarious losses are driven to consume less healthy foods. A 2013 study published in Psychological Science found that on the Mondays following a Sunday National Football League (NFL) game, the intake of foods high in calories and saturated fat significantly increased in cities with losing teams. They also decreased in areas with winning teams and remained stable in regions without an NFL team or with a team that did not play. Similar patterns were seen among French soccer fans, but disappeared when fans spontaneously self-affirmed or were given the opportunity to do so. "Self-affirmation involves replacing self-defeating thoughts with statements that are compassionate and confident," says Susan Albers, Psy.D. She says it's effective because it allows you to rewire your brain to think positively.

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3. Sip Away Your Stress

A 2009 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that even after adjusting for other possible factors like age, gender, medical history, body-mass index, alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking and diet, drinking green tea was inversely associated with stress. In more than 40,000 Japanese adults, levels of psychological stress were 20 percent lower in those who drank at least five cups of green tea daily compared with those who drank less than one cup per day. Los Angeles-based registered dietitian McKenzie Hall says there's good reason why many of us instinctively sip on tea to calm our nerves. "Green tea contains the amino acid L-theanine, which has been shown to promote relaxation, boost levels of dopamine and may help lower blood pressure," says Hall, who recommends reaching for tea as a strategy for staving off emotional eating.

Related: Win at Weeknight Dinners With These 10 Shortcuts

4. Tap Away Cravings

Have you heard of tapping, or psychological acupuncture, also referred to as Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT)? According to researchers at Griffith University's School of Medicine in Australia, practicing EFT on yourself can be a simple way to prevent emotional eating. The strategy, which has been used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias and addictions, involves gentle tapping on pressure points while focusing on particular thoughts and emotions. The scientists say the results can be immediate and long lasting. After just four two-hour sessions, cravings for junk food were significantly curbed, and the reductions were maintained at a six-month follow-up. A 2013 study published in the journal International Scholarly Research Notices Psychiatry found that among overweight or obese adults, those who were randomly selected for a four-week EFT treatment group experienced weight loss, fewer food cravings and more restraint over eating as well as a significant decrease in depression one year later.

Related: Win at Weeknight Dinners With These 10 Shortcuts

5. Alter Your Social-Media Interactions

"Many of my clients have emotionally eaten when Facebook made them feel lonely or bad about themselves," says Susan Albers, Psy.D. A 2013 study from researchers at Columbia University and University of Pittsburgh published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people who spent more time on Facebook had higher BMIs (body mass index, a measure of weight for height) and increased binge eating. "Social media gives us a peek into other people's lives, which often appear perfect in a static picture," says Albers. According to the study, even when Facebook users experienced an increase in self-esteem (because of the images they posted of themselves), usage still triggered a decrease in self-control and unhealthy snacking. Albers does believe that social media can become a positive tool, however. "Follow sites that focus on the positive, including empowering body-image quotes, healthy recipes and positive people," she advises.

Related: 16 Snacks That Are OK to Eat at Night

6. Catch More Zzzs

A restless night may result in waking up with a linebacker's appetite and the inability to resist temping foods. In a 2015 paper published in the Journal of Health Psychology, researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln say that a poor night of sleep affects appetite-regulating hormones, intensifies emotional stress, increases impulsivity and spikes food cravings. In a nutshell, not getting enough shut-eye is virtually a recipe for emotional eating. "A wind-down ritual is key for good sleep," says psychologist Susan Albers, Psy.D., author of "50 More Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food." She suggests choosing a sequence to repeat each night like a ritual, such as 10 minutes of stretching followed by 10 minutes of journaling. "Like a stop light, you don't just go right from green to red: You have to slow yourself down to prepare for slumber."

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7. Take the Focus Off Your Weight

Reducing the focus on your weight and size can translate into less emotional eating. A 2015 University of Liverpool study published in the International Journal of Obesity looked at data in three studies involving 14,000 children tracked into adulthood in the U.S. and the U.K. They found that those who identified themselves as being overweight were more likely to report overeating when they felt stressed. "When we obsess about weight we tend to get out of touch with our hunger and fullness cues," says McKenzie Hall, RD, co-owner of NourishRDs. To maintain a healthier attitude and healthier eating patterns, Hall advises being selective about whom you spend your time with. "If your social network makes you feel accepted, you'll in turn embrace your body more, have a greater appreciation for your body's physical abilities and be more apt to trust your hunger and fullness cues," adds Hall.

Related: 16 Snacks That Are OK to Eat at Night

8. Cultivate Mindfulness

A 2014 review of 14 studies published in the journal Eating Behaviors concluded that mindfulness meditation is an effective strategy for decreasing binge eating and emotional eating in populations who engage in this behavior. If you feel intimidated by the idea of meditation or worry that your mind will be too distracted, start by introducing a few basic techniques. "Being more mindful can be as simple as taking a deep breath, focusing on the present moment and becoming aware of what is happening right now," says Susan Albers, Psy.D. She adds that becoming more mindful can help you lower your cortisol level, the hormone that drives you to stress eat. "It can also allow you to feel more in control over what you are doing right now and help you to make your next food decision thoughtfully," says Albers, who includes several exercises and techniques for fostering mindfulness in her book "50 More Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food."

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9. Thwart Boredom

Having nothing to do may be a trigger for unplanned nibbling, according to a 2015 North Dakota State University study published in the Journal of Health Psychology. Researchers found that amongst more than 550 male and female college students, being prone to boredom predicted bored eating, even in students who didn't have a tough time regulating their emotions. It also predicted eating in response to other negative feelings like depression, anxiety and anger. One of the best ways to combat boredom is to simply break up your routine, says Susan Albers, Psy.D., who is also a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. "Reach out to a friend, get active, stretch or do something to keep your hands busy, such as a puzzle, knitting or drawing," advises Albers. "Just changing your scenery by going into a different room can help."

Related: Win at Weeknight Dinners With These 10 Shortcuts

10. Boost Your Healthy-Eating Self-Confidence

Feeling an internal sense of control over your ability to consistently attain your healthy-eating goals may be one of the most powerful ways to prevent emotional eating. In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Holistic Nursing, researchers found that perimenopausal women who had the highest levels of diet-related self-efficacy, or self-confidence, had the lowest likelihood of binge eating (and vice versa). To gain confidence in your ability to eat healthfully, Susan Albers, Psy.D., advises focusing on the principles of mindful eating, which she reminds is not an all-or-nothing strategy. She says, "If you slip up and overeat, turn your critical inner voice into curiosity and compassion so you can figure out why it was so hard to pass up that second cookie, tell yourself it's OK and continue trying for awareness and balance."

What Do YOU Think?

Do you struggle with stress or emotionally triggered eating? Leave a comment below and let us know. Share how you are working on developing a healthier relationship with food: Your experience may help motivate and inspire others.

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