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Emotional eating: How to cope?

tub of ice cream with scoop

If you raid the fridge when you’re stressed or upset, that is called emotional eating. Emotional eating affects almost everyone from time to time, but regularly letting your feelings guide your food intake can affect your health.

Sadness, boredom and other negative emotions can drive emotional eating. Emotional eating includes polishing off a container of ice cream after a romantic breakup or devouring a bag of potato chips when you are home alone on a Saturday night. Happy events can lead to emotional eating as well. Many people overeat at joyous occasions like parties and weddings.

Strategies to deal with emotional eating:      

  1. Learn to recognize hunger. Next time you reach for a snack, ask yourself what is driving it. If you are truly hungry, you will notice physical symptoms such as a growling stomach. Other less obvious hunger cues include irritability and difficulty concentrating. If those signs are absent, you probably don’t need to eat right then.
  2. Keep a journal. Take the time to create a “mood and food” journal. Write down what you eat each day, along with the emotions you were experiencing at the time and whether you were truly hungry. You may find that specific feelings, such as anger or sadness, lead to your overeating. Once you recognize these triggers, you can learn healthier ways to deal with them.  For example, if you experience stress, instead of trying to relieve it with a candy bar, take a walk around the block.         
  3. Build a support network. Surrounding yourself with friends and family who support your efforts to change your eating habits can improve your chances of success. It may also be helpful to join a support group through which you will meet other people with similar problems. The Via Christi LIGHT program has an amazing support group lead by a master’s level psychologist, Tony Kubina.
  4. Cultivate other interests. Finding an activity that you enjoy can increase self-confidence, which is often poor in emotional eaters. Examples of these activities are yoga, playing a musical instrument or painting. If you find that your eating is driven by boredom, a new passion can fill your hours and make you less likely to look to food for emotional satisfaction.

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About Debra L. Doubek MD

Debra L. Doubek, MD, is medical director of Via Christi LIGHT, a physician-supervised weight loss program in Manhattan, Kansas. She is certified in bariatrics through the American Board of Bariatric Medicine.