top of page

Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Eating: Tips and Strategies to Take Control of Your Eating Habits

Little African-American boy looking very serious, clutching an ice cream cone
"Don't you dare take my ice cream away!"

Are you someone who eats when you're upset or bored? You might be in the clutches of emotional eating, which affects many people in the United States. It is not something to be taken lightly; it costs our society in many ways. Yet how do you overcome emotional eating?

Many people know they need to change the way they eat for health, feeling better about their appearance, or raising their self-esteem. Their relationship to food has to be adjusted if it is a source of comfort, entertainment, or escape. Sometimes when people get a physical or mental illness, it’s hard to get the motivation to move and it’s tempting to retreat into sedentary activities like sleeping, eating and watching TV/videos/social media.

This seems to lead into a self-perpetuating cycle of eating, feeling shame and discouragement, and then eating to quiet the feelings of shame. This unfortunate trap is hard to extricate yourself from, but it is important to do so nonetheless.


Changing your food choices for a day/week, is fantastic when you're emotionally eating

Sometimes all it takes is making the decision, but often it takes more work with envisioning your new body and building motivation to achieve your dietary and exercise goals. However, when people have made a little progress in changing their food choices and then “slip” or go back to their old way of eating, they might engage in all-or-nothing thinking.

What do I mean by this? It goes something like this: You think to yourself, “I really screwed up big time there, and now I’m worse off than I’ve ever been. I’m so mad at myself! Ah well, I give up. Maybe this is how I’m destined to live.” The all-or-nothing thinking means that you’re either a perfect (and effortless) success, or you’re a failure and there’s no hope for you. So, you might as well eat the way you really want to, because it gives you short-term pleasure and relief from whatever bothered you in the first place.

Lighten up about your food plan!

Most food plans and diet programs allow for some human error, or a small amount of indulgence that is probably inevitable in human behavior. We can’t be saints all the time, can we? The trick is not to let austerity or severe indulgence win the day.

Either extreme is not a sustainable way to live. The austerity is so perfectionistic that it makes it almost impossible to achieve. The severe indulgence causes extremely bad health and low self-esteem, which perpetuates the self-loathing that sometimes comes with being overweight. Finding the balance between taking pleasure in one’s food, and exercising control over one’s food choices, is the goal for most people.

Sometimes for special occasions, a person can afford to “cheat” and eat something they wouldn’t normally, because they want to. That’s okay, it’s just important to make it a once-in-a-while thing rather than regularly giving into food cravings that are damaging to one’s wellbeing.

Food substitution

Substituting foods that have a similar taste to what you crave, but are not as processed or unhealthy, is another way to handle this situation. For example, if you crave salty, savory food, instead of going for that McDonald’s hamburger, you can make some Chinese food with a little meat, some vegetables, and soy sauce.

The salt and savory are fulfilled by the meat and soy sauce, but you don’t have to consume all the fat, additives, and MSG that is common in cheap, restaurant-prepared Chinese food. If you crave something sweet, consider making a fruit salad and having a nice hearty bowl of it, alone or with some water. The fructose is simple sugar, but it’s accompanied by fiber and nutrients. Compare that with a piece of candy, cake, or pastry, which has no nutrient value other than simple sugar, fat, and more additives.

Woman smiling face, in a plaid blazer, holding up sushi with chopsticks
You can find pleasure in all kinds of foods, and choose to eat when you're hungry, not upset

Most importantly, however, changing your attitude towards yourself when you stray from your food plan is the most beneficial to your wellness. When you have a hateful, adversarial relationship to your body, your whole being suffers as a result. The hopeless discouragement that comes with a sense of defeat is the enemy, not necessarily the food that you “cheated” with.

Replacing distorted thoughts like "I'm a failure because I ate that piece of cake" with more realistic thinking is crucial to achieving that sense of balance I was talking about earlier. For some more examples, see

It can be helpful to write down the thoughts you're having about eating before you eat, as well as after you eat, to see how your thinking influences your experience of the food and also to pay attention to how different foods make you feel about yourself. Just noticing the effect of the food itself on your body can be instructive too.

Noticing the effect of emotional eating and food on you

For instance, do you get a surge of energy, followed by a crash in mood and energy afterward? Do you feel congested, and is it difficult to use the restroom? How does the food feel in your mouth, on your tongue, going down your throat, and how does it feel in your stomach? All these things are helpful to notice because you learn about your body and how your preferred foods affect you, mentally and physically.

Eating mindfully without distractions helps you achieve that, so that you can pay attention to your body and its interaction with the food. Geneen Roth is a good writer to investigate regarding this, as she has made a career out of helping people break the cycle of compulsive eating.

Working with a health coach can also help you explore the thoughts and behavior patterns that sabotage your quest for wellness. If you would like to talk, please give me a call at 661-575-7135.



Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page