How to Break Free of Emotional Overeating

Esther Kane
by Esther Kane
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How to Break Free of Emotional Overeating

Sometimes we turn to food not because we are physically hungry, but because something is “eating us” emotionally. Many of us were taught that food can “soothe a mood,” and that by eating something when we’re upset, we will find comfort. Can you remember being a child when you fell down and scraped your knee and your mom gave you a cookie to make you feel better?

Even into adulthood, we continue to use food to soothe our moods, only now with negative consequences: We realize that we still haven’t dealt with what was bothering us in the first place after we’ve consumed an entire tub of ice cream, plus we’ve eaten way more calories than our body needs. And we usually end up getting mad at ourselves for overeating. This sets us up for a vicious cycle of stuffing feelings with food (and thus not dealing with them), possible weight gain or excessive exercise and self-recrimination … until the cycle starts all over again. How frustrating!

Three emotional states in particular often lead to bouts of emotional eating: sadness, anxiety and anger.

Sad Eating

Let’s face it—when heartbreak hits, eating a tub of ice cream seems like a good idea. A bit of sweeteness to drown out your sorrow. But before you know it, you’re caught in a self-perpetuating negative cycle and it can be very difficult to get out of it once it’s started. You eat because you’re sad, then you feel even more blue because you’ve eaten so much; this can lead to a “what-the-heck” attitude, increasing the likelihood of overeating when the next bout of the blues hits.

Healthy alternatives:

1. Talk it out. If you’re feeling blue, it probably has something to do with an upsetting incident that has happened and you may feel a whole lot better to get it off your chest by calling up a friend and sharing what you’re feeling.

2. Exercise. Research has shown over and over again that one of the best ways of battling the blues is by moving your body and getting your heart pumping. Even doing 30 minutes of moderate exercise boosts the “feel-good” chemicals in the brain.

3. Boo Hoo it out. This is the non-technical term for having a “pity party for one.” Really indulge yourself here: Take a hot bath and light candles, listen to sad music, and cry until you run out of tears. You’ll feel a whole lot better after.

Anxious Eating

Many of us eat in an attempt to lower anxiety and a way of self-medicating ourselves. In fact, research has shown that carbohydrate-rich foods actually boost serotonin levels, a chemical that makes you feel calm. This explains why we often reach for carbohydrate-rich comfort foods when we’re stressed.

Healthy alternatives:

1. Take a nap or go to bed early. Research has shown that people who are well-rested are less susceptible to anxiety and stress, and are better at resisting the urge to overeat. Strive to get at least 8 ½ hours of sleep each night to reduce the urge to overeat in your waking hours.

2. Do something relaxing and calming. We all have different ways of relaxing. The next time you feel stressed and anxious and instinctively turn to food, resist the urge to run to the cupboard or fridge and, instead, practice one of the relaxing activities you enjoy the most.

Angry Eating

Often we will eat instead of focusing on what is “eating us.” We stuff our anger down with food to cope but, unfortunately, this doesn’t get rid of our anger. It simply buries it and if we don’t deal with it, it will keep popping up until we do. To make matter worse, we hurt our bodies by overeating and then add the feelings of guilt and shame to the anger we started with.

Healthy alternatives:

A way to get out of the “angry-eating trap” is to delay eating (even 10 minutes will do). Sit down, take a deep breath, and tune into what you’re really feeling and what you need to do to let go of your anger. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What happened today that may have made me angry?
  • Why did that event stir up angry feelings?
  • What do I need to do in order to let go of this anger and feel peaceful?

About the Author

Esther Kane
Esther Kane

Esther Kane is a psychotherapist with almost 20 years experience specializing in food, weight and body image, and is the author of It’s Not About the Food: A Woman’s Guide to Making Peace with Food and Our Bodies. She is one of Canada’s foremost experts on eating disorders, especially orthorexia, the obsession with healthy eating.


88 responses to “How to Break Free of Emotional Overeating”

  1. Avatar mireygal76 says:

    I’d add exercise to all the solutions. Anger – I turn to boxing. Anxiety – I turn to running. Sad, I turn to netflix. lol

  2. Avatar jlisah says:

    Often I’m anxious due to too much to do and not enough hours to do it – work that spills over into the evenings, weekends, etc. Do you have suggestions other than “take a nap or do something relaxing” for people who are trying to meet certain deadlines? I try to play music while I’m working to help destress and I try not to have a lot of snacks in the house.

    • Avatar Melody says:

      My new way of coping with busyness that’s giving me anxiety, is to get up and start my morning routine immediately. I do oil pulling while I am preparing my food for the entire day! Then I drink warm water with acv and lemon before my protein shake for breakfast. After I’m done with that I get myself ready. It seems simple and silly but it’s honestly what sets me up for a good day!

      • Avatar NikkiL2011 says:

        What is oil pulling and acv?

        • Avatar Name says:

          You can google oil pulling…it’s easy, and one of the best secrets I’ve ever found for myself, in many ways. My teeth have never been whiter. acv is apple cider vinegar.

      • Avatar Wendy Jeffries says:

        I regularly drank warm water with acv and lemon some years ago now (supposedly a miracle cure for rhuematoid arthritis). It resulted in the enamel wearing off my teeth, and a life time of dental work. The RA continues to progress 🙁

    • Avatar Jen says:

      You could try to take a hot steamy shower with lavender scented soap, oils, or candles. Give yourself 15 minutes to relax while also being productive at the same time. (You have to shower some time, might as well be just before you grab the next bag of chips.)

      Take the time in your shower to choose the first thing that comes to mind that you need to do. Just focus on doing that when you are done with you shower.

      Taking things one thing at a time helps me feel less overwhelmed, especially when I have a billion things to do. (Making lists makes me overwhelmed as well, so I did away with that.)

      The first thing that comes to mind is most likely the thing that bothers me the most, which means it is the thing that is causing me the most stress.

      The heat relaxes the muscles but is not soo good for your skin, so I wouldn’t go with hot shower every time. A cool shower is also refreshing during the 15 minutes.

      • Avatar Eilern says:

        Not sure you should bring the ‘Bosrd Room’ in the shower with you. Focus instead of lovely scent of lavender bring in the moment . When you get out of the shower you will feel better and be able to greet the ‘Board Room’!

    • Avatar modernmum says:

      anxiety is tricky, there is fine line between running on adrenaline and then developing an anxiety based reaction when your responsibilities are escalating ect. You understand what I mean. In all honesty, this is a very deep seated part of your personality and this is how you measure your success or inadequacies. It also becomes a handy barrier to keep people away because the excuse is so plausible. The best advice, I have, is to really examine yourself, triggers, excuses find a really good person (therapist or otherwise) to talk out and talk through what is blocking your ability to grow out of this. For me, this took a year, the next step I made was a commitment to Barre Classes. The breathing and stretching exercises helped me loose 25 pounds and lower my blood pressure by 20 points. Look, either way, it is a choice. I hope you choose to look after yourself. Your worth it.

    • Avatar ShellTri says:

      Seriously, this advice works if you don’t work for a living. Not all of us can step away for a nap, short run, yoga, meditation, whatever. The phone still rings. Deadlines are still there. The only thing that comes to mind for me is reach for a stick of gum – the jaw motion is often enough for me to vent some of that stress energy while still able to stay plugged in. Of course if you are client facing you may not be able to chew gum either, but then again if you are client facing you’re probably not stuffing your face with anything else.

  3. Avatar Jackie says:

    My fall back is happy eating-I want to celebrate happy things by eating with my family. I am realizing now that I can still do this with healthy alternatives. I’m still looking for other ways to celebrate that doesn’t necessarily include eating or spending money.

    • Avatar Joe Baker says:

      Play a board game it’s great , my family ages from 10 years to 78 and we have board game night , there are so many games out there to play, or do what I do and ask my Facebook freinds if you can borrow one for the night . Hope that helps.

  4. Avatar Ashley says:

    “You eat because you’re sad, then you feel even more blue because you’ve even
    so much” I think you mean eaten, not even 😉

  5. Avatar helen says:

    I am final year student at Uni and I am super stressed. What’s the solutions for that

    • Avatar MountainHaven says:

      I would recommend some form of aerobic exercise….it always relieves my stress level….good luck to you!

    • Avatar Eileen says:

      Walking with a friend in fresh air in a nearby park to clear cobwebs. Meditate mindfully by yourself or with a group. Stock up on crunchy apples n other fruits . Yoga and Breathe

  6. Avatar Jessica Schroeder says:

    Emotional eating gets me all the time. It’s the only reason why my weight bounces around so much.

  7. Avatar Dee says:

    Thank God im not an emotional eater because it would make my process much more harder. Chocolate is the death of me.

  8. Avatar Sam says:

    Running solves everything for me

  9. Avatar peep says:

    I don’t struggle with emotional eating as much as boredom eating. how do I fix that?

    • Avatar Deborah Burks says:

      Begin by asking yourself why are you bored? Based on that determine, what fruitful actions (other than eating) can you take to eliminate the boredom.

    • Avatar Jam says:

      Boredom is an emotional state,,

      • Avatar Linda Ayers says:

        Hi Jam, I just wanted to mention that I think you will discover that “boredom” eating is really emotional eating because the underlying feeling in “boredom” is actually anxiety. It is an ansy-ness, an inability to simply relax, the jumping around of the mind that wants to attach to something or is trying to avoid something. I find that writing in my journal can be helpful – even to make a list of things that I like and things that I don’t like. There could be a need to really examine all the complexities about the “don’t like” list, and an opportunity to explore the “like” list with some curiosity and enthusiasm. Hope this helps.

    • Avatar Ty C says:

      Seconded, Boredom is definitely one that wasn’t addressed.

      So far my best strategy is Coffee in the daytime, and reading/trying to fall asleep at nighttime.

    • Avatar Laurie Bee says:

      get yourself a hobby…..learn how to paint, knit, download some free books, go for a walk.

    • Avatar Anon says:

      Get up, do a little exercise, have a glass of water. It helps divert your mind from being bored, and hydrates you, thus reducing your appetite. It works for me.

      • Avatar Ty C says:

        Actually water doesn’t help much with emotional hunger, physical hunger it’s great, but if its 9-10pm and im trying to sleep and hungry exercise isn’t an option.

        • Avatar David A Taylor says:

          Try healthy low cal snacks. Greek yogurt or
          Popping some pop corn and drinking water might help fill the void enough to relax you. It helps for me

    • Avatar dana floyd says:

      Me too.. boredom eating & emotional eating–even when i know I’m not hungry….. so frustrating!!!! Been very sick w/the flu & its respiratory hanger-ons…. like to take dogs for walks–too sick & weak right now to go far from home…. am gaining weight back that I’ve lost (31lbs) 🙁

  10. Avatar darrensurrey says:

    Only really scratching the subject here. Better off seeking the help of a qualified (obviously) therapist if you’re suffering from serious emotional eating issues. 🙂

  11. Avatar Deborah Burks says:

    I appreciate this post today. I’ve been struggle so much with emotional eating. I printed out the suggestions and will use them as a reminder of my alternatives. Thanks again for the post.

  12. Avatar Ms Jae says:

    How do I deal with turning too food , doing a shock of grieven. My son was murder 6 months ago. I go too counseling

    • Avatar Maryellen says:

      I have the same problem. My twins died 8 months ago. I go to counseling. I do exercise, but can’t get the eating under control.

      • Avatar Marsha Martin says:

        Hang in there. My son was killed in 2011, it took me a year to get thru the grieving process and turning to food. I finally found an outlet to express my grief. I started sewing and made stockings for all of his siblings and grandparents out of his clothing. this led to establishing a a foundation in his honor and filling stockings we make to kids at Christmas. I also make stockings for others who have lost family members.

      • Avatar Kate says:

        You just be kind to yourself, the eating less will come. God bless you and your family

  13. Avatar Cassie Vetsch says:

    This is probably a dumb question but what if emotional eating is really not eating? When I am upset, sad, depressed and so on, I do not eat. I have no appetite. I know its just as bad so is it fixed the same ways?

  14. Avatar Ty C says:

    What about “The Munchies?”

    Probably more specifically known as “boredom eating”

  15. Avatar Kat says:

    What about happy eating? If I am anxious, sad, angry – I have zero appetite. I gorge myself when I am happy and everything is right in the world! Even when I was a child food=celebrating

  16. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I eat to feel better, then cry because I gave in to the temptation. It is all so sad. I lost my husband 2 years ago and I’m still grieving and gaining weight.

    • Avatar wendyrjr says:

      You can cry and get under your duvet – its all still very raw for you. Look after yourself and love yourself. We all have to work through our grief – in different ways and taking as long as we need at each stage, but we do get thro it. Thinking of you x

  17. Avatar Sharon says:

    You just described me. I have gained 30 pounds this year and everything that I have put into my mouth was put there because I was either depressed or anxious.

  18. Avatar Huf says:

    What about bored eating? I suffer with this

  19. Avatar DBoo says:

    I think it’s strange that when emotional eating is discussed, only “bad” emotions are discussed. I have a huge problem eating any time I want to celebrate something; I guess that would be happy eating? Lol. I don’t know. I guess the solutions will still be the same.

    • Avatar Jesing says:

      Yes – I really relate to this too!

    • Avatar Ty C says:

      Great insight! I’m like an unattended toddler at a birthday party when happy eating is involved.

      Or when I win a tennis match and go to town on the pizza afterward: “I won, I deserve this!”

      Still wondering how to overcome “boredom eating” or “the munchies” as many of us in our 20’s and 30’s go through.

    • Avatar 458italia says:

      If you are “happy-eating” so often that its negatively impacting your health then you are certainly in the smallest of minorities. This article is for people whose emotional eating is adversely affecting their health.

  20. Avatar Jaylie says:

    I’ve been constantly eating since I just started this alternative school and my whole family is laughing at me because I won’t be walking the Stage at graduation but they won’t understand the fact that it’s still a diploma, wrestling season is over and I’ve been eating and not excersing I know it’s not too late for me, but does anyone have any advice for someone like myself? Any words of encouragement? I literally am finding my own way to school and I feel alone but I have to hang in there only 2 months left and I need this diploma !

    • Avatar Sara says:

      Hang in there, kiddo. Family while we love them are sometimes our worst critics. Listen to your inner voice. Go to a quiet place – usually your heart- breath deep slowly, savor it. In and out. Let any other voice go and focus on the whispers of your heart. You believe and your heart will guide you to achieve.

    • Avatar JanieLou says:

      I for one am proud of you for staying in school and doing it without any support! Once you’ve graduated it won’t matter if you’ve “walked the stage” or not – you will have your diploma. It doesn’t matter whether your at the Alternative school or “regular” school. You’re finishing up to graduate – yay!

    • Avatar Christine Fredrick says:

      You can do it!!! Take a 5 min walk the fresh air will do some good. Or go out side and get some sun shine. Think of all the things your thankful for. Hot shower, friends, air in your lungs etc. AND KNOW YOU’RE NOT ALONE. We all get weary, just know you can achieve any thing you Put your mind to.Be blessed ,Christine

    • Avatar Evespower says:

      Good morning kiddo…You have to take it one day at a time. My prayers going out to you for supernatural covering and peace of mind, while you go through these next 10 weeks. I know what you are feeling as my family waits with bated breath as my 18 year old is about to graduate. It is stressful. The fact that you are still there says a lot about you, that I don’t even know, but can admire. Get up daily knowing you are walking this walk, and no one is going to walk it for you. Hold your head up and do the dang thing…for some folks here in the “www” are cheering you on to the finish line. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. YOU CAN DO IT!


    • Avatar Trying says:

      Do you have another form of exercise that you enjoy? You probably need to get outside and walk, jog, start running……if you are young and healthy enough to wrestle, I bet you could run….that mental outlet may be something that will help keep you on the rights path. You can do it! Don’t let the bummers bring you down….I

    • Avatar Sunday says:

      Jaylie you are doing an amazing job! Good on you for trying something that WILL make you happy.
      Keep it up and just think of that diploma, be proud and know you have made the right choice for you!!

    • Avatar Shlboswell says:

      You hang in there it gets better. Sometimes very rarely do any of us stop and eat right. Just don’t give up stay motivated and get your diploma and you can then use that same motivation to work on your eating habits. Nike motivation video on YouTube was very motivating!

    • Avatar Hulcup says:

      Your family need to stop putting you down and support you. I wonder if they are cause of your problems – you are doing something positive – well done – concentrate on that at the moment and be kind to yourself. Also try to surround yourself with positive supportive people – all the best

  21. Avatar Ernest Phillips says:

    Stop eating wheat. It triggers my desire to eat more and snack often. It also aggravates my arthritis and nasal congestion. Start a practice of mediating at least 10 minutes a day. (Preferably increasing to 15-30 minutes). The meditating will help you focus on other things during the day. A thought of eating will come in your mind and you just note it and set it aside and move on. Similar to what you would do during meditation when stray thoughts enter your mind. Note any other foods that increase your cravings and try to avoid or only buy in small quantities.

  22. Avatar Happy says:

    Have a huge slice of cheesecake with some added whipped cream on top. Always works best for me.

    Chase it down with a bowl of cotton candy icecream.

    Yup. I’m gonna go get some right now.

  23. Avatar HeavyLadee says:

    What if your depressed and simply just cannot motivate yourself? I’ve put on 3st in 4mths through comfortable eating (which I call discomfort eating) and I just cannot seem to stop. I have a counsellor but that isn’t making an impact either. I’m so depressed and now more so because I can’t fit into any of my clothes…

    • Avatar Trying says:

      Don’t listen to Happy. The cheesecake won’t help a bit. I really think Ernest has some good advice in his response….I know I am going to try it. Also, get up and move…every day and as much as possible. Put music on and dance around your house…turn the tv off…..drink water and meditate. And blog…like this!

  24. Avatar Philip khattar says:

    Well it is easy to get advice but you need a willing subject to work on until then all you are doing is wind blowing and for the subject who has a problem maybe we can label them too as a mere wind blower. I really don’t know how many people who would feel good being called the wind blower, one could say that their is no difference from a wind blower to a liar, instead of denying their private feelings I would challenge someone to being their hero and come out of their closet and be truthful to themselves and others. One thing about a wind blower is that they are hiding the truth and hurting the people who love them the most. ONE COULD AL SO SAY THE WORD SELFISH. it is selfish to yourself and to the ones who matter the most . No one likes to be labeled and there are no saints here specially myself, but the fact is the truth will set you free, trust a friend and give them a chance to help you, that is what real friends are about, nobody wants to be remembered as a wind blowers, selfishness, or someone who doesn’t trust another friend to help , I would try to not be these qualities and reach for a true fix and only then you can come to a place of peace with yourself, it is called the self hero that the truth set free.

  25. Avatar Trying says:

    Wow..this really touched me…all of it. I eat when I am happy, sad, anxious, bored, etc. I like the idea of having a friend you can talk to about your feelings, especially when bored or sad, but it seems people don’t really want to be brought down that way. Ok so some of you would say, find a real friend…well, how do you do that? I’m 50+ years old and still trying to figure that out. I have friends from way back that I’m still in touch with but only to talk about happy things and have fun with. I just had a pity party break down last Friday…took a walk and cried my eyes out. Felt weird to do but I did feel better afterwards. Trying to find hobbies that I enjoy is also tough. I think I have tried them all and haven’t found my calling yet. Maybe some of you on this blog can help me in those dark times… By the way, I have some good times too!

    • Avatar cjn says:

      Might I suggest working with a Life Coach. I did and my life feels so much better. They can help u clarify what u want, identify blocks, repurpose ur gremlin and support u while u make ur dreams come true. I recommend an iPEC trained coach because the training is great.

  26. Avatar Shel says:

    Get away from the TV! Advertisements for food are the worst.

  27. Avatar Lisa says:

    Cliches are called such for a reason – there is a grain of truth in them. I have been all of these things and reached for food. It’s cheap (mostly) and easy. What is NOT easy is taking it one day (sometimes one HOUR) at a time and being CONSCIOUS that you are eating – when it’s not a normal meal time for you. Easier said than done to just get up and go for a walk (what if you’re at work?) or just drink water (SICK of water!!) but what worked for me is to just DECIDE that you are going to do this NO MATTER WHAT. Fighting with yourself is the hardest. Be accountable – even if it’s only to an app on your phone. It will be worth it when you feel better and looking better is just the icing on the cake (DON’T EAT THAT! 🙂 )

  28. Avatar Theresa says:

    I have take up adult coloring which makes not think about anything especially picking at food when I feel low.

  29. Avatar Kathleen says:

    Also consider if you are getting enough good probiotics. They have linked the digestive biome with mood and obesity. One day or one hour at a time. Don’t feel discouraged. I used to binge heavily on chocolate when I was stressed and exhausted. I still fall back on this occasionally but I got much better with an overall low sugar/carb diet, good probiotics and lots of forgiveness. I stopped being angry with myself for bingeing and thought of myself as I would a friend who was struggling.

  30. Avatar sherri2820 says:

    Write this down and post it around your home (i.e. mirrors and frig door!!!!),
    “Within me lies the power to seize the hour and live my dreams!”
    It helped me pass a physics class and math class so I have decided to try doing this to stay on my bariatric doctor’s diet. Don’t know who wrote it. I remember it from an old poster I once had.

  31. Avatar Kimberli Berry says:

    Great post! As a weight loss coach, I stress this to my clients. DO NOT EAT YOUR PROBLEMS AWAY. It doesn’t help! I post health and fitness tips on facebook. Feel free to friend me.

  32. Avatar vangli says:

    Don’t boo hoo it out.. That ll worsen again.. Listen to happy songs.. Not sad songs

  33. Avatar Dan says:

    I find it irritating that most health advice is aimed at women. Web sites are overwhelmingly concerned with female health issues. No wonder they live longer! 🙂

  34. Wonder what it is when you eat for any mood you are in? That would be me. I am celebrating…EAT, Depressed….EAT, Bored…EAT..Anxious…EAT. I have lost a lot of weight. 112 lbs to be exact. People are always asking how I do it but it is not easy. Even after keeping my weight off for quite some time, I am still struggling on a daily basis to keep myself in line.

  35. Avatar Judith Brand says:

    I don’t feel like the stress thing is very helpful, because the thing about stress-eating is: you get stressed when you DON’T have (or don’t feel like you have) the time or peace of mind to take a nap or a bath, paint and sleep for 9 hours… but you read this so frequently!

  36. Avatar MadameAlto . says:

    My mind always boggles at the concept of “go to bed earlier”. Duh…the problem is that stress and anxiety keep many of us (including me) awake!!! Lying there tossing and turning because you can’t sleep only makes the situation worse. The calming activities suggestion is good, however.

  37. Avatar cordelia van beek says:

    I had not put too much thought into this issue before, i suppose due to a lack of personal experience. Thank you for this info, ill be aware if ever i see the signs.

  38. Avatar Abu Toyib says:

    Hey, I am really glad I have found this information
    nice and great posts

  39. try to chew more and drink lots of water..

  40. “I have gone through your website, Nice Article.
    keep up the good work going. Cheers!!!

  41. Avatar WantoAsk says:

    Hey Esther,
    Thanks for the amazing post.

  42. Avatar beautyepic says:

    I am really happy to say it’s an interesting post to read . I learn new information from your article , you are doing a great job . Keep it up

  43. Avatar Rana Arvind says:

    Very nice article Thank You for sharing

  44. Avatar WantoAsk says:

    This is a wonderful post. Thanks for taking the time to write and share this post.

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