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5 Tips for Reducing Emotional and Mindless Eating

How to make more mindful decisions around food and eating.

Key points

  • Emotional and mindless eating are common concerns.
  • Mindful decision-making can be used to address emotional and mindless eating.
  • Slowing down, practicing awareness of your thoughts and feelings, and thinking about your values can help reduce emotional and mindless eating.
Source: Alejandro Piñero Amerio/Unsplash
Source: Alejandro Piñero Amerio/Unsplash

Emotional and mindless eating are two of the most common eating concerns that come up in my practice. Neither are inherently harmful, or “bad,” in any way, but they often cause people distress and contribute to feelings of being “out of control." The act of disengaging from emotional and mindless eating requires building the opposite; engaging in mindful decision making to act in accordance with your values. Regardless of whether the final outcome is eating or not, the five steps below can help you to slow down and think about what you are doing before you do it.

1. Build awareness

Emotional eating and mindless eating tend to be automatic behaviours, meaning that they happen without really thinking about what you are doing or why you are doing it. The first step to changing any behaviour is to slow down and build your awareness of your internal experience and your urges to act. Checking in with yourself to see what you are thinking and what you are feeling, both physically and emotionally, can give you important information about what you need in any given moment.

It's often helpful to keep a journal, paying particular attention to urges to eat that fall outside regularly scheduled meals and snacks. It’s important to log not just what you consume, but what you are thinking and feeling before, during, and after eating. Are you particularly stressed after a long day at the office? Do you feel a strong craving for a particular type of food or taste? Do you notice that emotions like guilt and shame arise while eating? Consult yourself to see what your internal experience is communicating to you.

2. Check in with your hunger

Oftentimes urges to engage in emotional or mindless eating overlap with genuine physical hunger. Having a long, stressful day at work, during which you skip lunch, can create the perfect storm for bringing rise to intense cravings when you get home. And if you are genuinely physically hungry, having something to eat is usually a wise course of action.

When practicing awareness in the step above, don’t neglect to check in with your physical hunger and fullness cues. Physical hunger is often indicated by feelings of emptiness in your stomach, sometimes gurgling or growling, and at an extreme, can be accompanied by other, more general bodily feelings like low energy and irritability. If you notice that any of these are present and when you reflect on the last time you ate and it was more than a couple hours ago, chances are having a snack or meal is a good way to go. Having options ready and available in the fridge and in your pantry can be helpful for such instances.

3. Wait 15 minutes

If after having checked in with yourself and your hunger you determine that you’re not physically hungry, it can be helpful to engage in a technique we call “urge surfing.” It’s really just a fancy way of saying that it’s helpful to wait for 10 to 15 minutes to see if the urge subsides on its own. Just like thoughts and emotions, urges are impermanent experiences that rise and fall over time. When we act on them immediately by eating, we don’t give ourselves the chance to see that they may naturally go away on their own.

During the 15 minutes, you have a couple of different options for how to proceed. Sometimes it can be helpful to distract yourself with an alternate activity that takes your mind off of eating. Try choosing something that is incompatible with eating (i.e., keeps your hands and mind busy), like going for a walk or engaging with a hobby. After 15 minutes have elapsed, you can check back in and see where the urge is at. Another option is to “surf the urge.” This means mindfully paying attention to how the urge feels in your body and observing the way in which it ebbs and flows over time. You may even find it helpful to rate the intensity of the urge at different intervals to help quantify the changes you observe.

4. Think of your values

Having reached the point where you’ve practiced awareness of your thoughts and emotions, ruled out the presence of genuine, physical hunger, and surfed your urge for 15 minutes, it’s time to make a decision. Do you still want to eat, or not? First and foremost, there’s no wrong decision here. Taking the time to think through and intentionally decide how you want to proceed, rather than automatically acting on an urge to engage in emotional eating, is already a win.

Either way, it’s helpful to consult your values. Thinking about what’s important to you in the moment and whether eating in response to your emotions is consistent with these values can help to guide you in the direction of what you care about. Maybe in that moment a value like self-compassion comes to mind, because it has been a challenging day and you choose to cut yourself some slack and have a bowl of ice cream, eating it mindfully and enjoying every last bite. Or perhaps, having engaged in this process of mindful decision-making, you think of a value like spontaneity, and decide that what you need in that moment is to call up a friend that you haven’t talked to in a while and catch up. There are no wrong decisions and the more you act in accordance with your values, the greater your trust in yourself becomes.

5. Reflect on your experience

After having walked through this process, it can be helpful to reflect on the experience and how it went. Any strategies like these take practice and will require more than one try to facilitate consistent behaviour change. That being said, you can learn from your own trials to see what works, what doesn’t, and how you’d like to adapt the skills the next time you use them.

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