The trick with emotional eating is it often happens automatically, kind of in the background. You might not be able to say, “I just had a fight with my spouse and now I notice myself going to the cupboard with the intention of eating a whole bag of chips. Ha ha!” Some people might have examples like that where they are aware of what’s happening when it’s happening, but a lot of emotional eating is more subtle. Maybe you had a difficult day at work, you realize you had nothing planned for dinner, you are passing a fast food restaurant and decide to grab something there for the sake of convenience. Our minds are really good at justifying our food decisions, not matter how unhealthy, and might lead us to believe that circumstances, more than emotions, were the culprit.
Another problem, of course, is that different people will eat for different emotional reasons. Some may eat when they are anxious, or sad, or perhaps bored, and still others may find they eat more in joyous times, as kind of a way of making a fun time even more fun (or perhaps as an attempt to not “ruin” a fun time by putting restrictions on your food choices, which could lead to feeling deprived). This makes it hard to identify a single sign for everybody.
So the best way to see if emotional eating is an issue for you would be to tune into yourself a little more. First, keep at least a rough track of what you are eating. Did I eat more than I had planned to eat today? It would help to write down everything you ate. Second, check in with yourself at least a couple of times a day to see how you are feeling. Am I more anxious, stressed, sad, bored, or happy today or have I been at times throughout the day?
Then see if the two go together. On days when you find you are more anxious, do you also find you have eaten more than you planned to eat? If so, you may have a tendency to emotionally eat. You may think you “know” that you do this intuitively, but it is probably still worth tracking for a few days, or better yet weeks, to see. There is some good evidence that some people over-attribute eating to emotions. In other words, you may think you are eating in response to emotions, but when you track your emotions and your eating you may find there is no discernible relationship between the two.
The food environment is toxic, meaning there is an endless supply of delicious, high calorie, unhealthy, relatively inexpensive food available to you at a moment’s notice. And we know food provides short-term pleasure, comfort, or relief—desired changes from unpleasant emotional states. So overcoming emotionally eating can be difficult.
There are some practical steps you can take to prevent emotional eating. Eat consistently throughout the day so you never end up too hungry. Plan your meals at least the day before. Prepare your meals and snacks the night before (if you are going to work). Always have something healthy to eat within arm’s reach or a short walk to the fridge. Keep tempting foods out of the house/office. When you find yourself sad, anxious, stressed, or bored, seek social support or exercise. Both provide mood benefits and are positive actions to take.
You can also work on becoming more mindful and accepting of your emotions as they are. Practice basic mindfulness skills like scanning your body to notice any feelings. Observe and describe where and how you feel those emotions. Allow yourself to sit with them without trying to change them or make them go away. See if you can imagine making room for them and allowing them to come and go naturally. Learn this skill well and you can step out of the emotionally eating carousel almost entirely.
Finally, you can orient to the long-term cost of emotional eating. The short-term comfort or relief you get from eating is replaced often by guilt or shame soon after. This can become a vicious cycle because if you feel guilty or shameful about what you ate, and you really want to feel better right now…food is there for you again. And the cycle continues. You may have been stressed from a difficult day at work, but now you added shame to that. That’s a big cost, and the cost is there because you said “no, you must change” to the stress. So there is a cost to being unwilling to feel what we feel, and that has long-term health implications if your primary coping strategy is eating. Practice bringing this cost to your awareness explicitly, “If I eat this cake now I will feel better for a short time and then worse later on, and I will also have harmed my health a little.” The goal isn’t to make the healthy choice every time, but to simply make it a choice, as opposed to automatically eating, and then over time perhaps you start choosing health more.
A more in-depth discussion of emotional eating and how to deal with it is available in our book The Diet Trap.