10 ways to combat emotional eating and improve your eating habits

Have you ever experienced the feeling of boredom or loneliness, and then automatically reached out for a packet of cookies or crisps that you were keeping for a party next weekend? Or have you ever encountered yourself looking into a full-length mirror to view your figure, and then a few minutes later you’re in the kitchen grabbing a tub of leftover ice cream from the freezer?

These moments are commonly known as ‘comfort eating’ or ‘emotional eating’, and many of us have been there for one reason or another. The habit of emotional eating is increasingly popular due to the high demands of living such as stress at work, strained relationships, not finding self-fulfilment, boredom, loneliness, negative thinking, poor self-image, financial problems, you name it.

Unfortunately, the daily stressors can add up and create chemical imbalances in our bodies. If the stress hormone known as Cortisol is sky high this can deplete the levels of Serotonin and Dopamine in the body, the two hormones linked to feeling happy. Lack of sleep, depression, anxiety, constant fatigue, they are only a few of the signs of having high levels of cortisol in your body (1, 2).

Consider the following scenario, you start your day well, your energy is up, your commute into work was surprisingly pleasant and you feel you can move mountains. Then, you arrive at work and see a pile of reports on your desk waiting to be completed by the end of the day. You suddenly start to panic and your stress levels build up, causing your serotonin and dopamine levels to drop significantly. Now your brain signals to create homeostasis and searches for ways to bring back that “feeling good” sensation you had in the morning. The next thing you do is to consciously, or subconsciously, look for sugary foods to restore your serotonin back to its original level (sugar increases the serotonin levels and insulin stimulates uptake of serotonin to the brain). So, you eat the chocolate bar that your colleague offered you. You feel great again, your serotonin and dopamine levels are restored and you are ready to move mountains again. Two reports later you begin to feel pressured as the workload is indeed piling up and you contemplate whether you should cancel the date you were looking forward to after work. Subsequently, your blood sugar levels hit the roof, your thoughts cause you to stress more and here you are - getting crisps from the vending machine… and the cycle repeats itself over again.

We all experience everyday situations like the one above and we often end up in an emotional state which triggers our body to desire comfort foods. In the long run this can aggravate our health. In fact, it is a contributing factor to many diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular problems, digestive problems, skin conditions and weight gain etc. Below, we share 10 strategies you can use to improve your eating habits and lifestyle choices and to combat the negative impact that ‘comfort eating’ or ‘emotional eating’ can have on your wellbeing.


1. Mindfulness of your emotions

When you feel an emotion this causes a chemical reaction in your body. Do not panic when you start to feel emotions and want to grab something to eat! Start to think about what you can do next instead of rushing into the sugar trap cycle that was illustrated earlier.

Plan ahead of a schedule that could potentially become stressful, this way you can deal with the dips in your energy and mood levels more effectively as opposed to eating your stress away and risk putting on a few extra pounds at the end of the month.

2. Write a diary

Record your emotions in a diary to help you understand what triggers them and to identify any patterns. For example, you might be unsatisfied with a relationship and that’s why you constantly feel sad, or you feel angry because people at work do not respect you, or you feel lonely knowing that when the party has ended you are going home to an empty apartment.

Regardless of what you feel, it is important to understand where these emotions come from. This way, you will be in a better position and know how to deal with it. Write down your emotions and make time to reflect on them. If the situation is within your control take the necessary steps to change it. If it is not, take a step back and let it go.

3. Physical activity and exercise

Research suggests there is a strong link between exercise and serotonin levels. It is shown that exercise induces the production of tryptophan which is involved in the conversion of serotonin.  Incorporating weight training and endurance exercise into a workout plan will increase serotonin levels in the blood.  Moreover, it makes you feel good about yourself. In essence, this is a great way to minimize stress levels and even encourage you to eat healthier meals that can ultimately boost your energy levels for longer and help avoid sudden crashes in your energy.(4)

4. Walking barefoot

The next time you are in a park or forest,  try to walk barefoot on the grass or wood. Walking barefoot in these environments can establish a positive connection between your body and nature. When the stress you experience on a daily basis manifests itself into you feeling a rollercoaster of emotions, this can be detrimental to your entire emotional wellbeing. Scientific research suggests that walking barefoot on a natural ground generates a positive charge to the body, lifts a person’s mood and encourages the body to release any toxic emotions or stress you have accumulated. If you live in a city and you are always surrounded by the hustle and bustle, there is no harm in giving this simple strategy a go.(5)

 5. Call someone you trust

The word ‘emotion’ practically means energy in motion, and it essentially needs to leave the body. However, in some cultures, certain emotions are frowned upon and it is thought that they should not be expressed openly (i.e. it’s a popular thought that crying is a sign of weakness and sometimes a person may be scolded or made fun of for their crying). But if we do not let our emotions free like a bird this can trap us in a vicious loop of suppressed feelings and lead to unhealthy levels of emotional eating.

Calling a friend or a family member, who is within your trusted circle, can provide a safe outlet for you to express yourself emotionally. Talking is a way to expel any toxic energy out of your system the same way as you do when you are breathing out carbon dioxide from your lungs. Whether it’s a positive or a negative emotion, talking to someone about how you feel after the event that triggered the emotion will help to bring awareness, peacefulness, and a different perspective to the particular situation.

6. Meditation

Even a short session of 5-minute meditation can calm down your nervous system and leave you feeling peaceful and positively charged. Studies on meditation and stress show that Serotonin is released into the body when the acts of breathing in and breathing out are performed (3). This is great for avoiding ‘comfort eating’ because Serotonin is known as the hormone that keeps you fulfilled and happy, and once this hormone is released around the body a sense of calmness can reign and the food cravings are minimized instantaneously.

7. Mindful eating

Mindful eating only requires three things: food, utensils, and your awareness. Anything else such as a laptop, television, book etc. is not needed while you are doing this activity. Mindful eating is well documented as a way to increase awareness of your body and its’ full spectrum of senses and sensations while you are eating.

When you are eating mindlessly whilst in an emotional state you could take the fork or spoon and carry on eating until your belly is bloated, this is not ideal, even more when unhealthy comfort foods are being eaten. However, mindfully eating what is on your plate can reduce the likelihood of overeating. Chew your food, taste each bite and flavour, appreciate your meal and stop eating when your hunger is satisfied.(6)

8. Removing comfort foods from the house

One of the many reasons why we put on weight when we eat emotionally is because our home is stocked up with unhealthy and highly processed comfort foods. This doesn’t mean that we can’t eat the occasional ice cream or popcorn when we go to the cinema, but we need to realize that eating comfort foods on daily basis is going to have a negative impact on our wellbeing.

Getting rid of comfort foods from the house is taking responsibility to lessen your chances of reaching for foods high in sugar. If you know that certain foods are your weakness and do not particularly benefit your health, take the initiative to throw away those foods. Remember the power is in your hands, only you can control what you consume.

9. Be kind to yourself

Sometimes emotional eating occurs because we are not showing kindness towards ourselves. We are all susceptible to allowing negative thoughts about our imperfections, actions, and knowledge to bring us down. In reality, these thoughts can frequently trigger negative emotions and influence us to eat comfort food.

Kindness, on the other hand, can cancel out the damaging effects of a negative thought and instead produce positive energy and positive feelings. The next time you have a negative thought remember to be kind to yourself, do not let the negativity consume your time and energy. For example, if you make a mistake at a new job, don’t fill your mind with negative thoughts and think that you are incompetent. Instead, give yourself time and understanding; you are new to a job and you can learn from the mistake.

10. Hire a coach to help you create a personalized strategy

If you find that you have already tried all of the above strategies to lose weight and manage your eating habits but you are still not successful, hiring a coach could help you to find the solution. We, humans, are creatures of habits, sometimes we will implement the same strategies over and over again, thinking that we could obtain different results when, in reality, the results will, most often, be the same.

Whilst a coach is not a person who will tell you what to do, he/she can help you to open up your mind to the infinite possibilities of improving your lifestyle and ending problematic habits like comfort eating and overindulgence.

The takeaway

To stop yourself from eating when you are emotionally triggered is not an easy task. However, if you implement simple strategies into your daily routine you can successfully avoid the negative impact of comfort eating. Remember, we are not perfect. Slip-ups can and will happen, and these strategies will help:

·        Be mindful when this happens. Your awareness is key to breaking the cycle

·        Write your emotions in a diary, resolve what is within your control, and let the rest go

·        Go to the gym to release some serotonin, the feel-good hormones that can help you forget those pesky cravings

·        Walk barefoot to release toxic energy from your body, the world needs a positively charged you

·        Call someone who can listen to you, you need a friendly soul to connect with

·        Breathe consciously until you reach a state of peacefulness in your mind

·        Eat your food mindfully, enjoy your healthy plate of food until your body feels satisfied

·        Remove the temptation of eating foods that are going to cause you trouble

·        Be kind to yourself during the good and the bad moments in your daily life

·        If you can, hire a coach to support you on your journey to improving your lifestyle