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.


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