How to say “No!” to emotional eating

How often have you stumbled to your kitchen looking for something to eat to feel better?

close up of woman eating cake | concept of emotional eating

Picture this. Miranda trudges her way up the stairs to her flat, exhausted after a day’s abuse at a job that she grew tired of two years ago. Dropping her purse on the table, she hypnotically makes her way to the kitchen, where before she is even aware of it, she has opened the freezer, pulled out the triple-chocolate ice-cream and has downed a third spoonful.

“There goes my diet,” she says to herself. Realising her mistake three bites too late, she shrugs and skulks to the couch, hugging the ice-cream pack closer as she settles down to start flipping through channels on TV.

Sounds familiar?

At the top of this list are probably things like ice-cream and chocolate, two comfort foods that typically taste great, but pack more of an unhealthy punch than they are really worth. We know this. We’ve read it in the newspapers and magazines, and heard about it on the radio, and also decoded the health dangers associated with the sweet treats that we like to give ourselves when we need a fix. And, yet, though we logically know better, we continue to buy that candy bar, or indulge in our favourite dessert.

Understanding Emotional Eating

Do you eat when you’re not hungry? Do you overeat on a frequent basis? Do you eat when you are bored, angry, sad, excited, or depressed?

Emotional eating is the term given to a set of habits that all come down to the same point: food consumed in response to feelings instead of hunger.

This problem is widespread and if you find that you relate to this more easily than you wish, you’re certainly not alone.

Several factors may contribute to emotional eating. A poor diet can lead to carbohydrate addiction and low levels of mood-boosting neurotransmitters. A depressed emotional state can affect energy and motivation to make healthy choices. A downtrodden spirit may not even recognise the need to pursue health and wellbeing.

But, just as illness, whether of the body, mind or spirit, can manifest as emotional eating, positively affecting one of them can cause a healthy ripple effect that helps heal the others.

How to deal with your urge for emotional eating

Let’s understand how to deal with your urge for emotional eating at the levels of the body, mind and spirit.


Good nutrition is always the basis of good physical health. Assuming your digestive system is in good working order, you really are what you eat. Additionally, your body is a creature of habit and as such tuned to crave more and more of what you give it. If you eat loads of sugars, that’s what it will want. Likewise, start feeding it fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and you’ll see a shift in your cravings towards these foods. To break habit that involve poor food choices, seek you a good nutritional consultant who will help you determine what foods will help you turn around a cycle of nutritionally empty and addictive foods .

Exercise in proper amounts will energise you on many levels. It helps stabilise the appetite and boost the metabolism. A stronger, healthier body will also help you feel good about yourself and motivate you to stay active and make positive food choices. Even a small amount of exercise can make a big difference.


Mental and emotional concerns are at the centre of emotional eating. Negative emotions, in particular, tend to fuel overeating and poor food choices. One of the things that our modernised food production capabilities have done is changed our relationship with food.

Now, a growing number of people have developed an unhealthy relationship to food, viewing it as a reward, compensation, or activity, rather than what food actually is meant to be: fuel. If you find yourself repeatedly craving certain foods in direct relation to an emotion, chances are that you could use a bit of healing.

Luckily, emotionally-based addictions are now treatable through cutting-edge psychological counselling techniques. In conjunction with traditional therapies such as hypnotherapy, or the use of positive affirmations, these techniques can be incredibly effective at curbing emotional eating.


Ironically, our rapidly growing hyper-connected world has had an isolating effect and the resulting disconnection is one that many people feel on a deep or even subconscious level. Connecting with something deeper than ourselves can have tangible healing effects.

Not surprisingly, research suggests that a healthy sense of personal spirituality is a powerful ally in making and sustaining positive lifestyle changes. As you work to transform patterns of emotional eating into healthy living, developing a deeper sense of self and spirituality can only strengthen your resolve, boost your results, and provide calm direction in moments of temptation.

Building spiritual strength can be easy, though it takes dedication, whichever path you choose. Remember that the results are well worth the effort!

A regular prayer or meditation practice, for instance, can help calm internal dialogue and help you connect with your deeper self. Frequent journal writing or artistic expressions—such as painting, singing, or dancing—are wonderful ways to explore your truest feelings, thoughts and ideas.

Active people enjoy yoga, ta’i chi, and martial arts as spiritual disciplines which also engage the body and mind. Whatever your choice, taking the time to connect with and expand your inner landscape and relationship to something greater than yourself can help you find your centre and utilise untapped strengths and resources to help you overcome emotional eating.

How to stop the trigger

Experts say that about 75 per cent of overeating is caused by emotional eating, which means that a lot of us are guilty of using food to cope with our feelings.

While you’re working on what triggers emotional eating, make a list of other things you can do besides eating. If you get busy with something else, the urge to eat will usually pass. Here are a few ideas that you could consider when the urge comes…or even otherwise.

  • Exercise: It helps relieve stress and anxiety and it makes you feel good.
  • Call someone: Talking to a trusted friend or relative can be a great support and a nice distraction.
  • Dance
  • Meditate for 20 mins
  • Read
  • Walk the dog
  • Run an errand [somewhere, without food!]
  • Clean something
  • Organise your wardrobe or your kitchen shelves
  • Stretch, or do some yoga.

Another thing that can help is to make it difficult for you to reach your comfort food. Create a list of “comfort foods” that you tend to overeat or eat without hunger—chocolates, pastries, cakes, ice creams, chips. Avoid stocking them at home or make them difficult to reach. Strictly avoid storing them in places where you will see them often.

An older version of this article first appeared in the November 2006 issue of Complete Wellbeing

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Ryan Harrison
Ryan N Harrison, a holistic health educator and consultant in private practice, holds a post-graduate degree in transpersonal psychology and certifications as nutritional consultant, holistic health practitioner, spiritual counsellor, quantum-touch practitioner; and advanced practitioner of EFT [Emotional Freedom Techniques]. He also teaches and lectures in online and traditional settings. He lives in California, USA.


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