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How to Stop Emotional Eating

Do you overindulge in unhealthful foods when you're happy and celebrating or sad and sulking? There are psychological and physiological reasons to crave comfort food. There are also ways to break the cycle. Learn how to stop binge eating and control your eating habits, even during the most emotional times.

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How Moods Affect Eating Patterns

Many emotions lead to overeating, says dietitian Deborah Kauffmann, RD, LDN, a Maryland-based nutrition counselor for emotional eaters. In fact, 45 percent of emotional eating results from positive emotions, says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life (HarperCollins, 2014). Happy emotional eaters reach for food in an effort to maintain their positive mood, while unhappy emotional eaters seek to achieve a good mood, he says.

Are You Feeding Your Feelings?

Do you turn to food for comfort? To help determine if you're an emotional eater, pay attention to your eating patterns. Do you identify with any of these people?

  • Angry Eater: Joan is furious about how her boss criticized her in front of coworkers. On her way home, Joan hits the drive-through for fries and a shake. She eats them before reaching her driveway.
  • Sad Eater: Lois didn't plan to eat birthday cake at the office party. She told herself to eat just a few bites. Those bites became a whole piece and then another. Now Lois is convinced she'll never be able to stick to a healthful eating plan; she might as well eat whatever she wants. For dinner she eats a large pizza by herself.
  • Lonely Eater: Mark is home alone and feeling lonely. His girlfriend told him they need time apart. Mark turns on the television and eats an entire bag of chips before the 30-minute sitcom is over.
  • Happy Eater: Laura just found out she's getting a promotion at work. She celebrates with her sisters over beers, a bucket of wings, and cheesecake. She's so full, it hurts to get up from the table.

Does Emotional Eating Work?

Not well, the experts say. "Emotional eating is the biggest barrier to weight loss," says Jennifer L. Taitz, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in New York and Los Angeles and the author of End Emotional Eating (New Harbinger Publications, 2012).

The immediate positive effects of emotional eating may be a distraction, a boost in the brain's feel-good chemicals, more energy, and satisfaction from a fun food. However, just 30 minutes later, emotional eaters tend to rate themselves as feeling more guilty and more dissatisfied with themselves, Wansink says.

And don't forget that unplanned eating often causes a big jump in blood sugar. The consequences are far more dire, warns Kauffmann. Once the distraction and calming effects of eating wear off, toxic emotions of guilt and shame often replace them. The long-term effects include lower self-esteem, a lack of trust in one's body, and intrusive thoughts about food and weight, she says. There is another problem associated with eating to quash negative emotions: "We fail to learn from the wisdom of our emotions when we try to fill ourselves rather than learn from our feelings," Taitz says.

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