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Strategies to Overcome Emotional Eating

Chelsea Moore, MS, CN, CHC

Do you eat more when you’re stressed out or sad? Researchers call this emotional eating and it may affect up to 80 percent of American adults. Emotional eating occurs when we eat for a reason other than hunger. It is most often tied to negative emotions. However, positive emotions can also play a role.

One unwelcome side effect of emotional eating is weight gain. This is a growing concern, as more than 70 percent of American adults are either overweight or obese. Emotional eating can also lead to disorders like binge eating, intentional vomiting, and extreme calorie restriction. Ultimately, emotional eating undermines our ability to eat healthfully.

The good news is: emotional eating may be a learned behavior. In other words, a behavior that forms as the result of our experience. If we learn to emotionally eat, can we also unlearn it? New research on mindfulness says yes.

Source: Table reprinted with permission – “Your Journey to Better Health: Patient Guidebook” by Metagenics.

Are you at risk for emotional eating?

Certain groups of people are more likely to emotionally eat. These include:

  • Younger adults (21 to 39 years old). Young people are less likely to eat their meals at the same time every day. Not scheduling meals can lead to poor eating choices, especially at social events.

  • Women. Women are 20 percent more likely to emotionally eat than men.

  • Dieters. People who are trying to lose weight often ignore the urge to eat and may lose touch with natural feelings of hunger and satiety. This can make emotional eating worse. In fact, studies show that dieters eat more food than non-dieters when they’re under stress.

  • People who are overweight or obese. Having an unhealthy body weight more than doubles a person’s likelihood of emotional eating.

Know your personal emotional eating triggers

Emotional eating can be triggered by positive and negative emotions, including:

  • Anxiety. Research shows that obese people who suffer from anxiety eat more.

  • Boredom. A survey of more than 500 college students found that boredom was strongly correlated with emotional eating.

  • Depression. Although depression usually reduces our appetite, this is not always true. Studies show that depression can contribute to higher levels of emotional eating, weight gain, and obesity.

  • Happiness. Research shows that emotional eaters eat more when they’re in a good mood compared to a neutral or bad mood. Positive mood is an often overlooked risk factor for emotional eating.

  • Stress. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, stress can lead to poor eating habits. One-third of adults who overeat (or eat unhealthy foods) during times of stress say they use food as a distraction.

What is mindful eating and does it work?

Simply put, mindfulness is the practice of nonjudgmental awareness. It helps us focus on our immediate experience and gives us more control over life stressors. When we practice mindful eating, we:

  • Develop greater awareness of the present moment at mealtime.

  • Learn the difference between physical and emotional hunger cues.

  • Make conscious choices about what and how much to eat.

But, does it really work? Let’s take a look at the research.

  • In 2013, researchers wanted to find out if practicing mindful eating in a restaurant setting could improve weight loss. Thirty-five women were separated into two groups. One group received nutrition education, learned behavior change strategies, and practiced mindful eating. The other group served as a control. After six weeks, women who practiced mindful eating lost an average of -1.7 pounds compared to only -0.2 pounds in the control group.

  • A study published in 2017 looked at the effects of mindful eating on impulse control. 348 people participated in the study and were separated into three groups. One group participated in a mindful eating workshop, one group watched a video about general nutrition, and one group did not have an activity. Results showed that mindful eaters practiced more self-control with food.

How to get started with mindful eating

  • Prepare and eat meals in a peaceful environment. This could mean turning off the television, listening to relaxing music, setting the table, or lighting some candles. If you’re up for an adventure, pack a picnic blanket and head outdoors.

  • Get in touch with the way you feel, physically and emotionally. Before eating, close your eyes and take a deep breath. If you have a spiritual practice, this is a great time to pray. Otherwise, simply pause for a moment of gratitude.

  • Take the time to appreciate the way your food looks. Colorful meals are both visually appealing and nutrient-dense. Include a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables, herbs, and spices. Even if you’re reheating leftovers, add a garnish or use a nice plate.

  • Savor the flavors, textures, and smells. Concentrate on the moment to moment experience of eating. Eat slowly and chew your food well. This can improve digestion and helps your body absorb nutrients. Eating slowly also gives our body the chance to register when it’s full.

  • Try a mindful eating exercise now! Let Dr. Joseph Lamb walk you through a simple mindful eating exercise. Click the link to access his free Facebook Live video on mindful eating. The exercise begins at 37:42.

Bottom line

Emotional eating occurs when we eat for a reason other than hunger. Over time, this can lead to weight gain. The good news is: emotional eating may be a learned behavior that we can unlearn. One way we can improve our relationship with food is by mindful eating. Cultivating moment to moment awareness at mealtime: 1) teaches us the difference between physical and emotional hunger cues; and 2) helps us make conscious choices about what and how much to eat. Note: although mindfulness can improve emotional eating, it doesn’t always result in weight loss.


Chelsea Moore, MS, CN, CHC is a Certified Nutritionist and Health Coach. She graduated from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and completed her Master of Science in Applied Nutrition at Northeastern University.

Chelsea is passionate about lifestyle education and women's health issues. She is a member of the International Association for Health Coaches and the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior.

(253) 853-7233



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