5 Steps to Conquer Emotional Eating

Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is a vicious cycle: you experience an overwhelming emotion or are in a usually stressful situation. To soothe your emotions, you eat. Eating something may give you temporary comfort, but the benefits are short-term. Eventually, the circumstance that caused stress returns, and you return to emotional eating out of habit.

Reasons people turn to food during times of stress are several:

  • Food offers a temporary lift
  • It’s a way to distract from having to deal with the emotion or stress
  • It’s readily available

But emotional eating is something you can conquer once you understand the connection between emotions and eating, deal with the emotions that cause you to eat and find a better way to manage those emotions. Let’s look at some small steps you can take to overcome emotional eating.

Discover What Triggers the Eating

One of the hardest tasks, but also the most necessary, is to determine what motivates you to eat when you’re stressed and address the issue head-on. It might be a challenging situation at work or at home that you feel you have little control over.

One way to identify your triggers is to keep a journal. Write down what you eat, your emotions, and anything bothering you at the time. If you can identify what’s bothering you, make a list of possible solutions. Sometimes getting problems and worries down on paper reduces their power over you. The worst thing you can do is ignore the underlying emotion or trigger that causes you to eat.

Everyone has emotions – some more intense than others, but everyone experiences emotions at some point in their life. Emotions vary from anxiety, depression, anger, joy, and excitement to love and passion. People who engage in emotional eating use food to avoid confronting the more unpleasant of these emotions and avoid the pain associated with them. Bringing these emotions into the light of day reduces their hold over your emotions.

Find a Substitute Activity

Engaging in a substitute activity may be helpful in the short term for resisting emotional eating, but it’s not the best long-term strategy, as the emotions that cause you to eat will eventually resurface. When they do, you will have done nothing to resolve the underlying issue. Still, doing something that relaxes and brings pleasure is a short-term strategy to conquer cravings.

For example, you could substitute a cup of herbal tea or a stroll outdoors in the sunshine for eating, but it should be something you enjoy, or it won’t be an effective, short-term substitute. Don’t think of this approach as a long-term cure for emotional eating. You still must address and deal with your underlying triggers.

Also, learn to pause before eating something, rate your level of hunger, and ask why you are choosing to eat that item. A moment’s pause gives you the opportunity to reflect and better understand the link between what’s going on in your mind and what you’re choosing to eat. It’s important to understand this link if you’re to conquer emotional eating.

Discover Healthier Ways to Deal with Emotions

Since stress is a trigger for emotional eating, one solution is to find more effective ways to deal with stress. Mindfulness meditation, yoga, and controlled, deep breathing are techniques that work for some people. Mindfulness meditation is effective because it focuses your mind on the present, so it doesn’t drift to things that create inner turmoil. Even 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation and controlled, deep breathing can reduce your body’s stress response and if you’re consistent, you’ll notice improvements in all aspects of your life.

Practice Gratitude

It might sound simple but practicing gratitude can be helpful too. If you eat because you feel down, practice positive reframing to think about different aspects of your life that make you happy. Think about the people and circumstances in your life that you’re grateful for. Look at your surroundings with fresh eyes, the eyes of gratitude. Stop throughout the day and list in your mind the things you’re grateful for. Like meditation and controlled breathing, gratitude helps tame your body’s stress response. It’s hard to be stressed and grateful at the same time!

Consider Short-Term Therapy

Sometimes, it’s an intense, unresolved incident from the path that triggers an emotion you don’t want to face. It could be something that happened in the past that keeps replaying in your mind when you’re stressed. You might use food to keep from having to face those intense emotions. There are some who have deep emotions they can’t deal with on their own. If this is the case, it could be time for professional help, such as therapy.

The Bottom Line

Eating isn’t only for energy; it can be a source of comfort when you’re stressed, and a way to avoid confronting issues that cause stress. There are steps you can take to deal with emotional eating short and long-term. If you can’t overcome emotional eating alone, therapy may be beneficial. However, many people, once they recognize their triggers and deal with them, can conquer emotional eating.


  1. “How To Practice Mindfulness Meditation – Mindful.” 18 Oct. 2019, .mindful.org/mindfulness-how-to-do-it/.
  2. Hsu T, Forestell CA. Mindfulness, depression, and emotional eating: The moderating role of nonjudging of inner experience. Appetite. 2021 May 1;160:105089. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2020.105089. Epub 2020 Dec 26. PMID: 33373632.
  3. “Psychological Determinants of Emotional Eating in Adolescence.” .ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2859040/.
  4. Jalo E, Konttinen H, Vepsäläinen H, Chaput JP, Hu G, Maher C, Maia J, Sarmiento OL, Standage M, Tudor-Locke C, Katzmarzyk PT, Fogelholm M. Emotional Eating, Health Behaviours, and Obesity in Children: A 12-Country Cross-Sectional Study. Nutrients. 2019 Feb 7;11(2):351. doi: 10.3390/nu11020351. PMID: 30736444; PMCID: PMC6412589.
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