April 2, 2020

Emotional eating in uncertain times

Pinpoint your triggers, try diversion strategies, and be intentional with your eating.

Contributed by Sue Heikkinen, RD

You may find yourself asking, “Why do I turn to food during stressful times?” The answer is: Because you are human! Stressful times can significantly change how we eat. We tend to crave higher fat, higher sugar foods, and eat when we aren’t necessarily physically hungry.

What is emotional eating?

At a basic level, emotional eating is eating because of the way you feel — anxious, sad, stressed, or bored — instead of because you’re hungry. 

According to Cindy Silvis, PsyD, behavioral medicine specialist for Kaiser Permanente in Colorado, we may turn to food for a sense of control when everything else seems out of control. Food can be associated with comforting and pleasant memories. We may have memories of being comforted with a plate of warm cookies or of family meals with loved ones. Food is also a quick and readily available soother, as we may not have the option of booking a massage or getting out for a long hike.

What should I do if I am an emotional eater?

Most importantly, don’t be too hard on yourself. Feeling guilty about food choices can make you feel worse, potentially leading to more eating.

Michele Gilson, RD, Kaiser Permanente in Colorado, recommends maintaining a routine for eating. If you regularly eat 3 meals and 2 snacks a day, keep doing that. Skipping meals can lead to low energy levels and feeling overly hungry, triggering overeating.

Gilson also suggests asking yourself if you are truly hungry. If you are truly hungry, of course, you should eat. If you aren’t hungry, ask yourself what else might be going on. Are you feeling stressed, lonely, or bored? This will help you pinpoint your triggers.

What are some alternatives to food?

Let’s be real, there are times when nothing other than a piece of chocolate or a handful of crunchy, salty chips will fit the bill. However, it is important that food isn’t your only go-to. Dr. Silvis suggests trying diversion or postponing strategies first.

Possible diversion strategies include filling in a coloring page, treating yourself to a foot soak, going for a quick walk, pulling weeds in the garden, working on a jigsaw puzzle, playing with your pet, or listening to your favorite song.

Dr. Silvis also suggests drinking a glass of water and setting a timer for 10 minutes. When the timer goes off, ask yourself if you are hungry. Perhaps the craving has passed. If you aren’t sure, you may choose to set the timer for another 10 minutes.

Ok, I’ve tried these things and am still going to turn to food …

Congratulate yourself for being aware. Now you can focus on how and what you eat.

Eat mindfully

Give yourself permission to truly enjoy the food! Dr. Silvis suggests being intentional with your eating versus zoning out and nibbling mindlessly. Ever reach the bottom of a box of crackers, surprised that they “disappeared?” That’s an indication of mindless eating.

Gilson suggests eating from a plate or bowl. Research shows that we eat more when we eat directly from the package. She also suggests eating at the table, instead of in front of the television or computer where we will be more distracted.

Practice mindful eating techniques to get the most satisfaction from what you eat. Mindful eating is a guilt-free approach and focuses on being aware with all your senses.

Satisfy your craving

Let’s be real, munching on carrot sticks will not cut it if you are craving chocolate. Ask yourself what you are truly craving. If you are craving crunch, perhaps carrot sticks, popcorn, or sliced jicama will satisfy your craving. If you are craving sweets, a few squares of dark chocolate or a pudding topped with berries may do.

Cooking a simple recipe can be a great way to indulge the drive for comfort food while providing physical nourishment. Here are a few healthier options to try for a sweet craving:

Or a craving for savory comfort food:

And once you’ve satisfied your craving … move on. There is no benefit in feeling guilty or depriving yourself after eating emotionally. Use the experience to be more aware of your triggers and make a plan for next time. Consider making a list of activities that may be a good replacement to emotional eating. 

Visit kp.org or talk to your doctor for more information about anxiety and coping strategies, such as guided meditations.