How to stop eating emotionally

Feb 19, 2013 at 2:30 p.m. ET

We all do it. We get upset or frustrated and reach for the nearest piece of junk food we can find. Once we feel better, we regret our decision to emotionally eat. It's time to take charge of this unhealthy habit once and for all.

No more emotional eating
Sad woman eating chips

Emotional eating is eating to feed a feeling, not your stomach. It's when you eat out of boredom, anger, stress, sadness or any other emotion. According to the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center, there are certain signs that differentiate eating out of hunger from eating out of emotions. Emotional eating signs include hunger coming on suddenly (physical hunger is gradual), developing a strong craving for something (if you're actually hungry, you're open to options), not necessarily stopping when you are full and feeling a sense of guilt afterward. Obviously, this isn't good for your physical or emotional well-being, so let's learn to put a stop to it for good.

Recognize the signs

Just like any problem, the first step toward stopping emotional eating is recognizing and admitting that you have a problem. Start keeping a food journal and track what you're eating with what emotions you're feeling. After a few weeks, look back and see if you can pinpoint any patterns of behavior. For example, you may find you reach for a bag of potato chips every time you sit down to study or work, or you grab a bowl of ice cream when something's upset you. This is good — now you're aware of your triggers and you can work at correcting them.

Make a list of things to do

To help with eating out of boredom (or when feeling sad or angry), have a list handy that you can refer to when you feel the urge to eat coming on. If you keep yourself busy, the craving will pass. Some ideas for this list include going for a walk, calling a friend, reading a magazine or book, watching a movie, going to the gym, window shopping, deep-cleaning your house or even taking a nap. Once you've completed the activity, the craving will have passed.

Other ways to manage a craving include:

  • Drink a large glass of water to fill you up
  • Brush your teeth and rinse with mouthwash
  • Don't keep unhealthy food in the house
  • Chew gum
  • Eat a high-protein/high-fiber diet

Choose healthy alternatives

If you don't keep potato chips in the house, you're not going to reach for them when a craving strikes. We recommend stocking up on healthy foods to give yourself plenty of options when you're hungry. Eat small healthy meals throughout the day to keep yourself full, and if you can't help but give in to your craving, choose a healthy option. Instead of a bowl of ice cream, have a fruit and yogurt parfait drizzled with chocolate. Instead of chips, satisfy your crunchy craving with fresh vegetables or these stuffed dried fruit bites.

The key to taking control of emotional eating is recognizing the signs and working to change it. It takes practice, and, since no one's perfect, you're going to give in from time to time. That's OK — remember that moderation is key and to try and choose lighter, healthier options when possible.

Tell us

What are your tips for controlling emotional eating? Share in the comments below!

More on healthy eating

5 Ways to fight food cravings
Kick food cravings with a protein-rich breakfast
Healthy eating tips: Beyond the calorie count