Monday, May 24, 2010

What I Do to Stop Myself from Emotional Eating

One of the first things I had to learn to do to combat my emotional eating issues was develop the ability to ask myself and answer honestly: Am I experiencing physical hunger or emotional hunger?

To do this successfully, you need to learn to recognize the signs of physical hunger, such as a growling stomach, lack of energy, light-headedness, a headache, or grouchiness, and the signs of emotional hunger. Have you eaten enough that day that you should not be hungry yet? Are you eating for reward or because you think you deserve a treat? Do you have an almost uncontrollable urge to eat, but you have no idea what you want to eat and nothing you do eat satisfies you? Are you feeling an emotion that you don't want to acknowledge? Learning to recognize the difference between physical and emotional hunger is a skill you can develop over time. I'm fairly good at it now if I say so myself.

When I am confronted with an urge to eat for emotional reasons and not for physical reasons, to eat for reward, or even to binge eat, I try to stop and recognize why I want to eat. If I think I want to eat for emotional reasons, I will tell myself that I’m not hungry and don’t need to eat. This is not always enough to stop me.

I’ll try to distract myself. Can I start doing something else that will distract me from the siren’s call of emotional eating? This can work.

I’ll try to find some kind of external motivation or “sign” that will stop me from overeating. This journey can be very challenging, and I’m willing to use any tactic that will help me succeed. One of my colleagues at work shared how she was obese for years and lost a lot of weight and successfully kept it off by going to overeaters anonymous. She’s always been slender since I’ve known her, and you’d never know she used to be fat. Sometimes I’ll think of her or walk by her office if I want to overeat at work. That can help me resist the urge. I’ve walked by her office on my way to the vending machine and the sight of her will make me turn around to return to my office instead of buying junk food.

Sometimes the urges are so strong that you give in, or you are already in the midst of a binge when you realize you are doing some emotional eating. I will try to set a stop point or end point for myself if I can’t find a way to stop myself immediately. I’ll try to keep it limited to one meal and promise myself I’ll get back on the wagon immediately afterwards.

If it is the hour after or the day after a big session of overeating, I’ll try to make myself record all that I ate in a food diary. It may not be as bad as I’m feeling it was. I may not have eaten as much as I thought or lost control as much as it seemed. Even if the amount of food is as bad as I thought or worst than I feared, the mere act of writing it all down helps me to regain control. It helps me put a stop to it and go back to practicing healthy eating.

Like anything, the ability to stop yourself from overeating or talk yourself out of it grows and strengthens over time. Here is how I talked myself down from overeating after a tough day at work last September.

I had a miserable day at work and felt like I deserved a treat. Every part of my being seemed to be urging me to overeat. I briefly considered walking by my colleague’s office, but knocked that thought down. I left work planning to stop at Five Guys to buy a bacon cheeseburger and fries and glory in all that fat for dinner. I’d get back on the wagon the next morning. I started walking to Union Station, where I got the subway home, and I saw a familiar guy walking towards me. He said hi, and I recognized him as someone in my Weight Watchers Group.

It was a sign! What did I want? My leader to walk up to me and tell me I did not want to overeat for dinner. I let that sign convince me to rethink my dinner plans as I sat on the subway for my commute home. I started to think of all the healthier take out options at home. As I got on my second train, I convinced myself to get two tacos at Baja Fresh and stay within my calorie count for the day. By the time I got off at my metro stop, I decided to walk home and just eat one of my healthy turkey burgers. In less than an hour, I’d talked myself out of overeating.

I'm very proud that I've developed the ability to stop myself when I feel the urge to do some emotional eating. I'm not perfect, but I'm much better than I was for years and years. While many of the immediate tactics I described above are very helpful, I've also found ways to stop the urge to binge before it even starts. I'll start exploring some of my long-term strategies to combat my emotional eating issues in upcoming blogs.

Do you have tricks for talking yourself out of giving in to the urge to eat for emotional reasons?

Michelle Butler has made becoming a healthy writer a priority. She lives, works and writes in the Washington, DC, area. You can follow her on twitter at


Sally Kilpatrick on May 24, 2010 at 8:04 AM said...

Unfortunately, I'm most motivated when I go to try on pants that no longer fit. My other strategy is to keep certain foods out of the house entirely. (No Hostess in here!) I seem to be able to reason with myself except when I'm insanely hungry and when I'm extremely nervous about something--I haven't been able to combat those two yet.

Thanks for sharing your story--that's inspiration!

Elise Hayes on May 24, 2010 at 9:36 AM said...

I'm with Sally--one of my best strategies is just to keep out of the house the foods that I *know* I'll inhale if given the slightest reason. It really does help stall emotional eating if there's nothing tempting in the fridge or cupboard when you look :)

But thanks to this blog, I've also tried to make myself much more conscious of WHY I want to eat something: am I really hungry? or am I wandering around the house procrastinating from work that has suddenly hit a snag? That's helped tremendously.

Michelle Butler on May 24, 2010 at 10:27 AM said...

One of the things I try to do as a matter of course is "control my hunger" so that I don't reach the point of being very hungry - when, as you said, any self-control is out the window. This can even include carrying low-point but satisfying/filling snacks with me. Part of it is just paying attention to your body and knowing its signs.

Michelle Butler on May 24, 2010 at 10:34 AM said...

I'm fairly disciplined about what kind of food I bring in my house. I don't tend to have much if any junk food around.

If I do have this overpowering urge to have some junk food, I do try to get smaller portions of it. (Go to baja fresh and get my 2 tacos/single serving of chips and salsa, an ice cream cone instead of a carton of ice cream, etc.) One of the tips that my WW leader says is to check how much calories the entire package has (if you tend to be a "volume" eater). If the package has too many calories for one sitting, I don't bring it in my house. For example, a few weeks ago I bought a 4 oz package of wheat thins instead of the standard 11 oz package because I knew I was going to eat the whole thing that night/within 24 hours. I couldn't stop myself from getting the wheat thins - but I could convince myself to get the smaller package.

I do tend to have a tougher time controlling my portions when eating out as opposed to eating in. That's when I have to be extra on guard about if I'm eating for emotional (non physical hunger) reasons. If I'm in a stretch when I'm struggling with my healthy eating/lifestyle efforts, this can be super difficult. Sometimes, when I'm coming off a really out of control stretch, I'll have a week of no eating out. This almost always helps me get back under control and pretty much guarantees some kind of loss.

Richard Kuhns on May 24, 2010 at 8:13 PM said...

Emotional eating is a relatively new term and highly misunderstood. What's important to realize is that there was programming done at a very early age driven by the fact that the brain has two primary directives–pleasure seeking and survival. Early on we learned to associate food with survival and pleasure seeking. The good emotions such as happiness, joy, elation and so on are obviously associated with pleasure seeking and frustration, boredom, confusion, anger, depression and so on are associated with survival.

The sad news is that most programs to lose weight or deal with binging focus on food and never deal with emotional programming.

The bottom line is that focusing on what you do or do not eat to control or lose weight is like trying to fly by flapping your arms. To be successful it's important to focus on the stress of the emotion and learn to take it straight rather than diluting with food.
Now for the misunderstanding: Those who provide direction on dealing with emotional eating usually focus on the stress that led to the emotion or provide advice on how to reduce or avoid the emotion. But that's not the answer. The answer is to learn how to actually feel and embrace the emotion and articles giving you six or ten steps to conquer emotional eating is like expecting a first grader to pass the high school equivalency test. The result is that 95% of all diets and eating programs fail—even those focusing on emotional eating. Why? For a free report please go to

Michelle Butler on May 25, 2010 at 9:37 AM said...


I do think the steps can help you gain control of your eating and give you tricks to fall back on as you are working to reach the point where you can handle the emotion. I think the process all builds on itself, and it's not a straight line.

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