Mar 4, 2018

How to overcome emotional eating

Originally published in Women’s Fitness 

One of the biggest challenges people face when trying to make healthy lifestyle changes is falling into the trap of emotional eating. Food should be nourishment for our bodies, but we all know that food can also be a means of escape, comfort, celebration and connection. Food isn’t just fuel. It’s a huge part of our social and emotional world.

There are lots of reasons why people comfort eat. If you’ve been brought up in a household where food was offered as a treat or reward, you might continue to use food as a way to self-soothe when you’re stressed or upset. Then there’s the matter of brain science. Highly processed sugary food hits the reward centre of your brain, triggering the release of dopamine – it feels good and you want more of it.  Over time, dopamine receptors start to down-regulate, which means you need more of the sugary stuff to get the same effect. This is the same process that happens with drugs and alcohol, so people can and do become addicted to sugar.

The occasional over-indulgence won’t do long term damage but if your weight loss efforts are being undone by emotional eating or you think you need to break the sugar habit, there are a few things you can do to get things under control. We chatted to Cassandra Dunn, clinical psychologist for TIFFXO, who shared some tips on how to overcome emotional eating.


The first step to overcoming emotional eating is to pinpoint your personal triggers. If you’ve had a slip up and reached for a sugary snack, jot down the time of day/night, what you ate, what emotions you were feeling at the time (including whether you were actually hungry), and how you felt immediately afterwards. Hopefully you’ll begin to notice a pattern. Importantly, you want to identify what feelings prompt you to reach for the food, i.e., what is the emotional need you’re attempting to fulfil. P.S. This should all be done with an attitude of curiosity and self-kindness, not judgement!


Brainstorm a list of other, healthier ways that you could meet this emotional need. The point of these activities is not to simply distract you from the thought of food but to learn more healthy ways to soothe whatever troubling emotion is causing you to want to eat. Your list might include going for a walk, having a shower, reading, meditation, listening to some music, playing with your dog or phoning a friend. Have your list on hand and the next time you’re hit with an urge to indulge, pause before reacting and go to your list instead. By doing something different, you start re-training your brain to associate these alternative activities with feeling better.


Lots of people who struggle with binge eating talk about ‘zoning out’ when they overeat, and any kind of emotional eating is usually done fairly mindlessly. Overcoming this disconnection between mind and body is an important step to beating the problem. Mindfulness starts with pausing before you eat to check whether you’re hungry. Then when you do eat, bring your full attention to what you’re eating (taste, smell, textures, colours) as well as your physical and emotional state. By being more present while you’re eating you’ll learn to recognise your body’s ‘full’ signals and also to realise the impact different foods have on your body.  Exercise, meditation and yoga are also great ways to re-connect with your body so that your food choices are more likely to support your overall physical and emotional wellbeing.

Remember, we’re not in the business of deprivation and it’s ok to have an occasional treat without beating yourself up. Keep some healthy snacks on hand to satisfy those cravings and when you do indulge, savour it and move on with your day.