5 Steps to Overcome Emotional Eating

Claire Feldman, Founder of Eatology sat at her table writing in a notebook. Get help with binge eating and food obsession.

Are you an emotional eater?

Emotional eating is a common problem that affects millions of people worldwide. It’s the act of using food as a coping mechanism to deal with various emotions, such as stress, sadness, anger, or even boredom. As a psychotherapist, I have seen countless clients struggle with emotional eating in the UK and Ireland, and it can be a challenging issue to overcome. However, with the right strategies and support, it is possible to break free from this unhealthy pattern. In this blog post, I will outline five steps to help you overcome emotional eating and regain control over your relationship with food.

What’s the difference between emotional eating and binge eating disorder?

Before diving into the steps, it’s essential to understand the difference between emotional eating and binge eating disorder (BED). While both involve consuming large amounts of food in response to emotions, BED is a more severe condition characterised by recurrent episodes of binge eating without compensatory behaviours (like purging) and feelings of guilt or shame afterward. If you suspect you might have BED, it’s crucial to seek professional help from a mental health professional specialising in eating disorders.

Step 1: Distinguishing between emotional and physical hunger

The first step to overcoming emotional eating is learning to differentiate between emotional and physical hunger. Emotional hunger often comes on suddenly, whereas physical hunger tends to build gradually. Emotional hunger also tends to crave specific comfort foods, while physical hunger is more open to a variety of options. To better understand your hunger cues, try keeping a food journal to track when you eat, what you eat, and how you feel before and after eating.

Step 2: Understanding your triggers

Once you can distinguish between emotional and physical hunger, it’s time to identify the triggers that lead to emotional eating. Triggers can be external, such as a stressful situation at work, or internal, like feelings of loneliness or anxiety. By understanding your triggers, you can begin to develop healthier coping strategies to manage these emotions without turning to food.

Stress is a really common trigger for many of the clients I work with. They often spend their day spinning plates trying to meet the demands of modern life and chocolate or alcohol becomes the reward for for making it through another day. One thing I get my clients to reflect on is where they are acting out of obligation rather than need and to consider where they can create firmer boundaries around themselves to support their emotional wellbeing.

Step 3: Identify your emotions before you eat using the HALT technique

The HALT technique stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. Before reaching for food, ask yourself if you are experiencing any of these emotions. If so, consider alternative ways to address these feelings rather than resorting to emotional eating. For example, if you’re feeling lonely, reach out to a friend or family member for a chat instead of grabbing a bag of chips. If you want to read more about the HALT technique, read my blog here: HALT: A tool to curb emotional overeating.

Step 4: Develop coping strategies for managing emotions

Now that you’ve identified your triggers and emotions, it’s time to develop healthier coping strategies to manage them. This may include practicing mindfulness techniques, engaging in regular exercise, journaling, or seeking support from friends, family, or a local eating disorder therapist. The key is to find what works best for you and make it a consistent part of your routine.

Step 5: Increasing tolerance for all emotions, even the bad ones

Part of overcoming emotional eating involves accepting and embracing all emotions, even the negative ones. It’s essential to understand that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, or stressed – these are natural human emotions. By increasing your tolerance for these emotions, you’ll be less likely to turn to food for comfort. Practicing self-compassion and reminding yourself that it’s okay to experience difficult emotions can be a helpful strategy.

How does counselling to overcome emotional eating work?

If you find that you’re struggling to overcome emotional eating on your own, don’t hesitate to seek additional support. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a proven method for addressing emotional eating and can be an effective tool in your journey towards a healthier relationship with food. CBT involves identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors related to eating and emotions. Working with a trained therapist, you’ll learn new coping strategies and develop a greater understanding of the factors contributing to your emotional eating.

In conclusion, overcoming emotional eating is a process that requires self-awareness, patience, and persistence. By following these five steps and seeking additional support if needed, you can begin to regain control over your eating habits and develop a healthier relationship with food. Remember, you’re not alone in this journey, and there are resources available to help you succeed. If you need support with your journey to overcoming emotional eating in Ireland or the UK, you can get in touch with me here.

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