Emotional eating vs. mindful eating

When we’ve had a rough day, sometimes our first instinct is to reach for something delicious (typically high in fat, sugar, calories, or all of the above).  For example, how many chick flicks have you seen where the woman has a bad break-up and reaches for a pint of Chocolate Fudge Brownie Ben & Jerry’s? Or how about when you’ve had a rough day and your mom offers you a big chocolate chip cookie? Food is often used to cope with emotions such as anxiety, boredom, sadness, or stress; in fact, many of us have been conditioned to turn to food for comfort even when we’re not that hungry.  Unfortunately, though it may taste great in the moment, making a habit of “emotional eating” can often lead to more negative feelings such as poor self-esteem or guilt (“how could I have eaten that whole bag?”).  In addition, indulging in “comfort food” on a regular basis can often lead to overeating and even unwanted weight gain over the long term.

So how can we help prevent emotional eating? The first step is to become aware of when you eat to cope with emotions versus when you eat to satisfy hunger.  One way to do this involves identifying certain “triggers” that cause you to seek comfort food.  Here are some examples:

  • Stress at work
  • Boredom
  • Tough course load/trouble in school (ex: you get a bad grade on an exam)
  • Relationship conflicts
  • Fatigue/sleep deprivation
  • Financial issues

When you find yourself reaching for food, think about why you are eating – are you actually hungry, or are you upset about something, or maybe you’re just bored? After you’ve identified your “triggers,” there are a number of strategies you can try that can help prevent emotional eating in the future:

  • Distract yourself – go for a walk, call a friend, or do chores that you’ve been putting off.  Anything to get your mind on something else!
  • Get plenty of sleep – being well rested will make you more alert and conscious of your food choices throughout the day.
  • Find support in friends or family – when you are stressed or upset, talk it out with a loved one.  Getting it off your chest is a healthier and more effective way of seeking comfort than is horsing a bag of chips.
  • “If it’s not there, you can’t eat it” – don’t keep certain foods around that you know are your “go-to” foods when you are emotional.  However, this doesn’t mean completely depriving yourself of treats every now and then! Total deprivation will only lead to binging and additional cravings, especially if you are upset.

Ultimately, even if you don’t have an issue with emotional eating, thinking more about when and why you are eating can help you become more mindful of what you put in your mouth (which is definitely a good thing!).  Mindful eaters are more attuned to their physical hunger cues and food choices.  So the next time you reach for that big box of cookies after a stressful day…slow down and try some of the tips above.  And if you want to learn more about how to be a mindful eater, try this website:



  One thought on “Emotional eating vs. mindful eating

  1. September 1, 2011 at 3:32 am

    Great post Elizabeth! Loved it.


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