Diet

3 ways to help you stop emotional eating

We've got expert tips on breaking the cycle of feeding your feelings.

Stop feeding your feelings

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Sometimes eating has very little to do with your actual hunger and is instead directly related to emotional triggers. Our emotions can have a powerful influence on our actions, especially eating. In fact, a study in Psychosomatic Medicine confirmed that people tend to consume food in order to self-medicate feelings of stress or anxiety. If weight loss is one of your goals, then applying techniques to control emotional eating will definitely help you.

According to my colleague Natalie Shay, an expert specializing in stress, emotional eating and psychotherapy, these are the three most important ways to stop emotional eating:

1. Become aware of your true hunger signals
The easiest way to tell if you’re really hungry is to drink a glass of water before a meal. This will help you see if you’re just dehydrated, or if it’s true hunger that you’re feeling.

Natalie recommends beginning your healing journey by creating a hunger scale that goes from one to 10: one represents when you feel so starved you can’t think straight, and 10 represents when you feel so full you can’t move. Before you eat a meal or snack, range your current level of hunger. At the end of your meal, write down your current level of hunger again. Try to stay between four and six before eating and six and eight afterward. You shouldn’t be so full that all you want to do is sleep.

2. Become aware of exactly which emotions drive your eating
Take note of what you experience emotionally during and after you eat. Are you bored? Sad? Angry? Lonely? Try to be honest with yourself (without being hard on yourself), and remember, building self-awareness is a huge first step.

3. Learn to stop punishing yourself every time you eat something you’re trying to avoid
Be aware of the negative messages you send yourself and make a commitment to no longer beat yourself up. The easiest way to start this is to spend a week writing down any negative thoughts about yourself in a notebook. Throughout this process, you need to be patient — and honest.

Research published in International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity shows that improving body image can enhance the effectiveness of weight loss programs based on diet and exercise. Positive self-talk is not only good for the soul, it’s also great for the waistline.

Each of these exercises shouldn’t take more than five minutes. The key is to write down exactly how you’re feeling at the moment, without thinking about it or editing yourself. Remember, although food feels like your enemy at times, once you become aware of your actions, you’ll see how simple it is to break old patterns and free yourself from emotional eating.

To complement Natalie’s tips, here are some of my own:

1. Stick to the table
Many of us reward ourselves at the end of the day by kicking our feet up and grabbing a snack as we watch our favourite sitcom or catch up on Facebook and emails. Unfortunately, this behaviour prevents us from truly paying attention to how much we’re eating. According to recent research, spending time in front of the television is linked to an increased consumption of unhealthy snacks and drinks — not to mention that advertising is more likely to spur your appetite for sweet indulgences if you already have a plate of food in front of you. Instead, plan your meals and snacks ahead of time and enjoy them at the table. You’ll find that not only do you eat less, you’re more conscious of when to stop.

2. Get balanced
A glycemically balanced meal of protein, fats and low-glycemic carbs will keep your blood sugar steady and help prevent incessant cravings. I recommend enjoying a protein shake for breakfast and a second as a mid-afternoon snack.

For better appetite control at meal times, try consuming your protein first, your veggies second, and any starchy carbohydrates last (I recommend having the latter only once a day). Of course, be sure to top your meal with a healthy fat — such as one tablespoon of olive oil, a tablespoon of slivered almonds, or ¼ cup of avocado — to keep you full longer.

Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor, Chatelaine magazine columnist, and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and The Supercharged Hormone Diet. Her newest release, The Carb Sensitivity Program, is now available across Canada. She’s also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique and a regular guest on The Dr. Oz Show. For more wellness advice from Natasha Turner, click here.

-Article originally published January 2012.