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6 Steps to End Emotional Eating

By Kathi Cameron, MA, RCC

Emotional eating can be defined as eating motivated by both positive and negative emotions.  We eat when we are happy, sad, bored, angry, out of habit, and as a way to celebrate holidays and special occasions (or just because it’s Friday).  According to author and clinical psychologist, Jennifer Taitz, examples of emotional eating may include eating without hunger, eating during a stressful time, sneaking food so others won’t notice, and feeling a sense of emotional release while and after eating.  Those that have experienced the vicious cycle of dieting understand that the process of caloric restriction leads to a lapse in nutritional judgement leading to the feelings of shame, guilt, and despair that, inevitably, leads to emotional eating.  So how does one stop the cycle and begin to eat to live (and not live to eat)?


1. Take a Snapshot

Before any steps are taken to reduce or eliminate emotional eating, it is helpful to understand what the current situation is first before we make plans to change.  By keeping a record of when (and why) we eating during the day, we may see a pattern emerge.

For example, if we find we are munching on snack foods at work to alleviate the stress we are experiencing we are more able to create an action plan to avoid it.  If we find we tend to snack more at night, in front of the TV, we can take the steps necessary to reduce it.

Binge Eating

2. Become Aware of Feelings

Once we are aware of the trends in our eating behavior, it is time to examine those pesky feelings that may be standing in our way of weight loss or healthy eating.  It is important to note that emotions drive our behavior and provide us with the information we need to express what we need (or don’t need) from others.  The trouble comes when we don’t express what we are feeling and self-soothe with food (or alcohol, drugs, exercise, shopping, sex, gaming…).

Using the same notebook, begin recording the feelings experienced before, during, and after eating.  In addition to this, it may be beneficial to also note if physiological hunger is present or if we are eating for other reasons. If difficult feelings arise, it may be time to solicit the support of a helping profession instead of facing it alone.


3. Acceptance is The Hardest Part

Once we have outlined a pattern or relationship between our emotions and eating response, the hardest part may be moving towards accepting the feelings instead of pushing them down with food.  Human beings are pretty strategic when it comes to avoiding the negative feelings.  We will find something to take our minds off of having to deal with them (like a tub of Rocky Road). The fact is, whether we deal now or later, we will have to someday…so why not now?

When the feelings come up and we are making that mad dash to the pantry, stop. Grab your notebook and write down any emotions, feelings in the body, urges that may accompany them, and take a deep cleansing breath. Is it physiological hunger or is it emotional hunger? Can we accept the emotion, sit with it, feel it, and let it pass? It may take some practice but if we can feel instead of eat, weight management, increased energy, and an enhanced sense of well-being may be the result.


4. Practice Relaxation Exercises

Research has shown, undoubtedly, the many benefits of relaxation (a.k.a. stress management) exercises.  From reduction of stress response, heart rate, and blood pressure to the strengthening of immune system function overtime, exercises such as mindfulness and deep breathing can make a huge difference to health.

When faced with the urge to suck back a bag of chips or plate of pasta, try sitting still in a comfortable position while taking three cleansing, deep breaths.  Breathe in slowly; filling up every corner of the lungs, and exhale slowly and in a controlled manner.  Try visualizing the tension leaving the body with each exhalation. This may be what makes or breaks that bee-line to the fridge.


5. Eat Mindfully

The concept of mindfulness has gained momentum over the years with growing popularity of positive psychology.  Originating from India and taught by the Buddha, the practice of mindfulness includes a focus on the present moment versus the past or future.  It is all about being aware and giving the moment our undivided attention (free from cell phones and other technology).

Mindful eating is about being present and engaged with the eating process.  As we sit down to a meal, note how the food is presented.  Take the time to enjoying and appreciate each bite while eating slowly instead of racing to the finish line.  Eat meals at a table instead of in front of a screen.  This will help to focus all attention on the process of eating and enjoyment.  Be sure to note the emotions that may be present and how the body is feeling during mealtime.  Have the notebook handy to record any thoughts, revelations, or other observations of interest that might help fight the battle against eating emotionally.


6. Seek Support

Many times, we can make the small changes needed to reduce or eliminate our emotional eating habits.  It is important to understand that emotional eating can be related to or transition into an addiction to food.  Food addiction is becoming more understood and accepted as a serious mental illness as other substance abuse issues are.

Obesity can be the result of more serious mental health issues resulting from past traumas and a history of abuse.  There are many psychologists and counsellors within our communities that can provide the appropriate support we may need to treat food addiction and learn to live free of emotional eating.



Kathi Cameron, MA, RCC


Kathi has worked in the health and fitness profession for over 25 years and holds a degree in Kinesiology with master’s degrees in exercise and sport psychology and clinical counselling. She is currently a corporate facilitator in health promotion on topics relating to exercise, mental health, and addiction awareness. She is a firm believer in the prescription of exercise for positive mental health and that good health can be enjoyed at every size.

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