Emotional overeating: How to regain your control

Nutritionists from the University of Maryland Medical System regularly contribute a guest post to the Sun's Picture of Health blog (baltimoresun.com/pictureofhealth). The latest post is from dietetic intern Janelle Schleicher.

Emotional eating is when we use food as a way to cope with our feelings or if we eat in response to a feeling that we have, as opposed to in response to hunger. But not all emotional eating is created equal. It is something that each person encounters on a daily basis, and it is not always a negative thing. Think about the celebratory dessert that you may have after a big promotion or those chips that you eat when you are bored. "Emotional eating becomes a problem when it is used to cope with emotions and when it leads to more negative feelings such as guilt, lack of self-control and poor self-esteem," according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Stop and breathe

It is important to take time to think before you eat any meal. Before you instinctively reach for that bag of chips or pint of ice cream, take a few minutes to stop, breathe and come back to the present moment. What does your body really need in this moment?

Define the emotion and face it

Thirst, boredom, exhaustion, stress, excitement and many other emotions can be falsely translated into hunger. Once you stop to breathe, define the emotion you are experiencing and take the steps to address it. Will eating a late night snack really make you less anxious over an impending deadline? Probably not. Instead, make a cup of tea and take the time that you would have spent eating making a plan to finish up the project or to cross a task off of your to-do list.

Phone a friend

Sometimes all it can take is a voice of reason or someone to express your emotions to, in order to put your feelings into perspective and get back on track. Additionally, a few minutes of a distraction is all that it can take to reduce a craving. So next time you feel some emotional eating coming on, take the time to pick up the phone and call a close friend or someone that you have been meaning to catch up with for a while.

Write it down

This can come in two forms: keeping a food journal or writing down your feelings (or both). Keeping track of what you eat throughout the day can help you make more conscious decisions about whether your body really needs another meal or snack. Writing down your feelings is a good way to cope with emotions that does not involve eating.


Make a list of other activities that you can engage in to help you cope with your emotions. Think back to what makes you truly happy. Exercise, read a book, do yoga, take up painting or knitting, anything. It can be helpful to think of an activity that requires you to use your hands so that you are not tempted to eat at the same time.

Forgive yourself

This is the most important tip of all. We are all emotional people, we are only human, and sometimes emotions will get the best of you. Think of yourself as your best friend, because that is what you are, after all. What would you tell your best friend if she told you that she ate a few too many slices of pizza the night before a big test, or how about those cookies after a bad date? It happens to the best of us. Forgive yourself and move forward.

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