The Ultimate Guide to Overcoming Emotional Eating (Without Resorting to Willpower Alone)

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Do you ever feel like you’re just not in control of your own eating habits?

Like no matter how much you want to eat healthier or get serious about losing weight, there’s always something that’s holding you back? And maybe that something isn’t even logical or rational, but it’s something that feels so much bigger and stronger than you that it’s literally impossible to resist.

And so you end up in this vicious cycle where you vow to do better and cut back and stay on track, only to find yourself right back at square one, feeling like an utter and complete failure because you just don’t have the willpower to stick with it.

The truth is that emotional eating affects so many of us, whether we want to admit it or not. And honestly, I feel like it’s kind of the elephant in the room with weight loss and healthy eating. It’s the thing that no one wants to talk about, but that honestly has such a huge impact on our ability to actually see results.

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What is Emotional Eating?

So let’s start by talking about what exactly emotional eating is. Because the reality is, we all have emotions, and we all eat. In fact, eating is one of the most basic ways that we celebrate or find comfort or enjoyment in our lives.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The problem is that when our emotions start to control our eating habits in a way that isn’t healthy or beneficial for our bodies, then that’s when it becomes an issue.

So what exactly is that issue?

Well, at it’s most basic level, emotional eating is eating in response to feelings rather than hunger. It’s when you use food to soothe or manage your emotions, or to fill a void that isn’t related to actual hunger. It’s when you turn to food for comfort or as a way to deal with stress, anxiety, sadness, or even happiness.

And honestly, that can take a lot of different forms. For some people, emotional eating looks like eating a whole pint of ice cream when you’re feeling sad. For others, it’s reaching for the chips and salsa, or baking a whole tray of cookies. And for others still, it’s the mindless grazing or snacking that happens when you’re bored or lonely, or just feeling overwhelmed.

But at the root of all of it is that emotional connection that we have to food, and to the act of eating, and the way that it makes us feel.

And honestly, it’s not all bad, right? There are a lot of good reasons to love food, and to enjoy eating. Food is a big part of our culture, and our families, and our social lives. It’s one of the ways that we celebrate, and connect with each other, and find joy in our lives.

But the problem comes when that emotional connection to food starts to take over in a way that isn’t healthy.

Why Do We Turn to Food for Comfort?

So why does that happen? Why do we turn to food for comfort in the first place?

Well, like I said, we all have emotions, and we all have to eat. And so it’s not really surprising that at some point those two things start to intersect. It’s like a perfect storm of necessity and desire.

But I also think that it’s really important to understand that it’s not necessarily a character flaw on your part. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak, or that you have no willpower, or that you’re just not trying hard enough.

In fact, the reason that so many of us struggle with emotional eating is because it actually does serve a purpose. It does actually help us to feel better, at least in the moment.

That’s because when we eat certain foods—particularly those that are high in sugar and carbohydrates—it triggers a release of dopamine in our brains. And dopamine is that feel-good chemical that makes us experience pleasure and happiness.

So when we’re feeling sad or stressed or overwhelmed and we eat a whole pint of ice cream or an entire bag of chips, it literally does make us feel better. It literally does give us a temporary high.

The problem, of course, is that it’s just that—temporary. And so we keep going back for more, and more, and more, in an effort to keep that high going. And then we end up feeling guilty and ashamed, and the cycle just starts over again.

But it’s not just the dopamine that makes us turn to food for comfort. There’s also the fact that for a lot of us, food is a big part of the way we were raised. It’s the way our families celebrate, and connect, and find joy. And so it’s literally hard-wired into us from an early age.

And then there’s the fact that, at least in the moment, it actually does work. It does make us feel better, even if it’s just for a little while.

So it’s not surprising that we turn to food for comfort. It’s not something that’s wrong with us. It’s just that, at some point, we have to recognize that in the long run, it’s actually not helping us.

How Emotional Eating Sabotages Your Weight Loss Efforts

And that’s because emotional eating, while it may bring temporary relief, actually ends up sabotaging your weight loss efforts in a lot of different ways.

For starters, if you’re turning to food for comfort, then chances are pretty good that you’re not making the healthiest choices. And that’s especially true if you’re eating the same high-carb, high-sugar foods over and over again.

But even if you are eating healthier foods, it’s still a problem. Because the reality is that when you’re eating to soothe your emotions, you’re not eating because you’re actually hungry. And that means that you’re probably eating a lot more than you actually need.

And then there’s the fact that when you’re eating to deal with emotions, you’re not paying attention to what you’re eating. You’re not savoring the flavors or enjoying the experience. You’re just shoveling food in your mouth. And that means that you’re not actually giving your brain a chance to register that you’re full.

And if all of that wasn’t enough, emotional eating also tends to happen at the worst possible times—late at night, or when you’re already tired, or when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed. And so not only are you eating more, but you’re also eating at the times of day when your body is least able to process all of those extra calories.

And all of that means that, in the long run, you’re going to gain weight. Or at least have a really hard time losing it.

So if that’s the case, then it might be worth asking yourself a few questions. Like, why does this happen? And why do we keep doing it, even when we know it’s hurting us? And what can we actually do to change it, without just relying on willpower alone?

What Causes Emotional Eating?

Well, like I said, I think the first step is in understanding what actually causes this to happen.

And as I see it, there are a few different factors that all play a role.

The first is just that food is such a big part of our lives and our culture. It’s literally everywhere. It’s in every celebration and every holiday. It’s part of every social gathering. And it’s the way we’ve been taught to comfort ourselves and our families for generations.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like I said, there are a lot of really great and positive aspects to our connection to food. But it also means that it’s something that’s always there, and always so readily available.

And then there’s the fact that, for a lot of us, our emotional connection to food starts at a pretty young age. I know for me, a lot of my best memories from childhood revolve around food. And I think that’s true for a lot of people. It’s what you were given when you got a good grade on a test, or when you were feeling sad or lonely, or when you were celebrating a special occasion with your family.

And so that emotional connection to food is something that gets hard-wired into us from a really young age. It’s something that’s so deeply ingrained in our brains and in our hearts that it’s literally become a habit.

And as we all know, breaking a habit is hard, because it means having to actually retrain our brains to think and behave in a different way.

But it’s not just about the emotional connection to food. The fact is, when we eat certain foods—especially those that are high in sugar and carbohydrates—it triggers a release of dopamine in our brains. And dopamine is that feel-good chemical that makes us experience pleasure and happiness.

So when we’re feeling sad or stressed or overwhelmed and we eat a whole pint of ice cream or an entire bag of chips, it literally does make us feel better. It literally does give us a temporary high.

And the problem, of course, is that it’s just that—temporary. And so we keep going back for more, and more, and more, in an effort to keep that high going. And then we end up feeling guilty and ashamed, and the cycle just starts over again.

But it’s not just the dopamine that keeps us coming back for more. Because the reality is that sugar is also highly addictive. In fact, studies have shown that it can be just as addictive as cocaine or heroin. And so when we’re eating a lot of sugar, it triggers those same cravings that addicts experience when they’re trying to quit.

And the problem is that a lot of the foods we tend to turn to for comfort—the foods that are so deeply ingrained in our culture and our memories—are also the foods that are highest in sugar and carbohydrates. Things like ice cream and candy and cookies and soda.

So it’s like the perfect storm of all of these factors coming together—our deep emotional connection to food, the dopamine release that makes us feel good in the moment, and the highly addictive properties of sugar and carbohydrates.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that so many of us are dealing with a lot of other emotions and stressors in our lives that make us more likely to turn to food for comfort. Things like depression and anxiety, or a job that we hate, or a relationship that’s falling apart, or even just the everyday stress of raising a family or trying to keep it all together.

All of those things wear us down and make us more likely to turn to food as a way to cope.

So it’s really not all that surprising that so many of us struggle with this.

How to Overcome Emotional Eating

But the good news is that there is hope! And that’s because there are a lot of different things that we can do to actually change our behavior and overcome emotional eating, once and for all.

And like I said, it’s not just about willpower or trying to “white-knuckle” your way through it. Because the reality is that relying on willpower alone is never going to work, at least not in the long run. You have to actually change the way you think and feel about food, and about yourself, and about your own ability to change your habits.

So with that in mind, here are a few tips for how to actually overcome emotional eating and start taking control of your own health and weight loss journey.

Tip #1: Start by Understanding Your Triggers

The first step in overcoming emotional eating is to start by understanding what your triggers actually are. In other words, what are the things that are causing you to turn to food for comfort? What are the emotions or situations that leave you feeling more vulnerable and more likely to make unhealthy choices.

For a lot of people, these triggers might include things like stress, or loneliness, or boredom. For others, it might be sadness or anger or frustration. And for others still, it might be something like anxiety or even just the need to feel in control.

But the more you can start to understand what your triggers are, the better equipped you’ll be to actually deal with them in a healthy and productive way, instead of just turning to food.

And that’s why I think journaling can be such a powerful tool for overcoming emotional eating. It allows you to keep track of your thoughts and feelings in a way that lets you gain a little bit of distance and perspective, so that you can start to see patterns and understand what’s actually happening.

So if you don’t already have a journaling practice, I would definitely recommend starting one. And it doesn’t have to be anything fancy—just grab a notebook or a blank piece of paper and start writing down whatever comes to mind. Write about how you’re feeling, or what happened that day, or just random thoughts and ideas.

And then use that as a way to start identifying your triggers, so that you can start coming up with strategies for how to deal with them in a healthier way.

Tip #2: Find Healthier Ways to Cope

And that actually brings me to my second tip, which is to find healthier ways to cope with your emotions and stress, instead of just turning to food.

Because the reality is that food is not actually the problem. It’s just a symptom of the problem. It’s the thing that we’ve been trained to use as a way to cope, because it’s so easy and so accessible and it actually does make us feel better—at least in the moment.

But there are also a lot of other things that can make us feel better, in a more sustainable and healthy way. Things like exercise, or taking a walk outside, or listening to music, or dancing, or practicing deep breathing or meditation. Or even just talking to a friend or taking a hot bath.

There are literally so many things you can do to help yourself feel better in a more healthy and productive way. And so the more you can start to identify those things and incorporate them into your life, the better off you’ll be.

And that’s not to say that you have to completely give up your favorite foods forever and always. That’s not the goal. The goal is just to start finding other ways to cope and deal with your emotions that aren’t always centered around food.

So the next time you find yourself feeling stressed or overwhelmed, instead of reaching for the potato chips or the pint of ice cream, try going for a walk or doing a few jumping jacks. Or even just taking a few deep breaths. I think you might be surprised at how much better it makes you feel.

Tip #3: Make Sure You’re Eating Enough

And then my third tip for overcoming emotional eating is to make sure you’re actually eating enough food throughout the day. Because a lot of times, we’ll turn to food as a way to cope because we’re actually just really hungry and our bodies need nourishment.

But when we try to restrict our food intake too much or stick to strict diets that leave us feeling deprived, it’s only natural that we’ll turn to food as a way to cope. Because our bodies are just trying to tell us that they need more fuel.

So if you’re constantly feeling hungry and deprived, try taking a look at your eating habits and make sure you’re actually giving your body the nutrients it needs throughout the day. This might mean adding in some healthy snacks or including more satisfying meals that incorporate a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats.

Honestly, I think that’s probably the one thing that makes our TAS program SO effective. There’s no deprivation. There’s no counting calories—like EVER. It’s just eating the RIGHT foods that will balance your hormones in the right way. But you can eat as much as you want or as you need to. Without one bit of guilt.

And that’s pretty huge.

Tip #4: Be Kind to Yourself

And then last but not least, be kind to yourself. Overcoming emotional eating is not an easy journey and there will likely be setbacks along the way. But that’s okay. It’s all about progress, not perfection.

So REMIND yourself of that. All the time. No matter how far you’ve come or how many setbacks you have. You’re doing the best you can and that’s all anyone can ask for.

And when those moments do happen where you find yourself turning to food for comfort, instead of beating yourself up about it, try to show yourself some kindness and understanding. Acknowledge your feelings and then move on. Don’t let one slip-up derail your entire progress.

Remember, you are not defined by your eating habits. You are so much more than that. So keep going, keep trying, and be kind to yourself along the way. Because ultimately, that’s how you’ll find success in overcoming emotional eating—by showing yourself love and compassion, even in the hardest of moments. 

Final Thoughts

Emotional eating is a common struggle for many people, but it’s important to remember that you are not alone. By understanding your triggers, finding healthier ways to cope with emotions, ensuring you’re eating enough, and being kind to yourself, you can start to overcome this challenge and build a healthier relationship with food.

And just know that it takes time and effort. It won’t happen overnight, but with persistence and self-compassion, you can make progress towards a better and happier you. So keep going and never give up on yourself. You are capable of overcoming emotional eating and living a more fulfilling life. Trust in your journey and trust in yourself. And remember to always prioritize your mental and emotional well-being above all else.

Sending love and support on your journey towards a healthier relationship with food. You got this!

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About the Author: AZ