WEIGHT MANAGEMENT ∙ 5 minutes read

8 tips for managing emotional and comfort eating

By Uxshely Carcamo

You may have been following a very healthy routine – eating well and working out regularly but (very frustratingly) still aren’t seeing the weight loss results you expected.  

Sometimes, all it takes is a stressful day at work, an argument with a family member or a moment of anxiety, for the healthy eating plans to get abandoned and for us to reach for some food (or alcohol) to cope with how we’re feeling. The things we turn to in these moments of stress or sadness don’t tend to be broccoli, kale or a protein shake. We’re most likely to reach for the most energy-dense and indulgent foods we can find. In these moments when we’re feeling down or stressed, it’s natural to think “what is the point of even trying” and to turn to food (or alcohol) for some temporary relief and comfort. 

We don’t just eat for fuel and nourishment.  We also don’t only eat when we’re hungry.  Many of us will also eat when we’re stressed, bored, sad, tired, lonely or anxious and food is one of the most socially acceptable coping mechanisms that we have available to us. So what can you do if you’re finding that comfort eating is getting in the way of your weight-loss goals? Here are 7 tips for managing emotional and comfort eating: 

1. Ask yourself whether you’re actually hungry or just want the food for emotional relief

It can help to try and identify why you feel like eating.  There’s a big difference between feeling a food craving for emotional reasons and experiencing a food craving due to physical hunger.  Here are a few questions you can go through to figure out whether it’s an emotional craving or a hunger craving: 

  • Did the urge to eat come on very suddenly? This is likely to be an emotional urge to eat as physical hunger tends to build up more gradually. 
  • Am I craving very indulgent foods? Often emotional cravings for food tend to be for high-energy indulgent foods whereas physical hunger can be satisfied with a range of different foods. One study showed that the top comfort foods for men are ice cream, soup and pizza or pasta. The study suggested that men tend to prefer hot savoury meals as comfort foods whereas women tended to go more for sweet comfort foods. 
  • Am I eating in response to something happening in my life? If you are, this will be an emotional craving. 
  • Do I feel the need to eat is coming from my stomach? If it is, this is more likely to be a case of physical hunger driving the craving. 
  • Have I just eaten something recently or when I start eating am I finding it hard to stop? As emotional food cravings have very little to do with physical hunger they are often not satisfied by eating and you may feel the need to keep eating until you get to the point of feeling very full or uncomfortable. 

2. Listen to music or use other distraction techniques 

When the urge to eat in response to a negative emotion comes up, it can help to try and distract yourself with another activity.  Typically that urge to eat will subside if you give it enough time to pass.  Research suggests that listening to music can help to prevent emotional eating. Listening to music is one of several distraction techniques that could be used when negative emotions kick in. Other distraction techniques could include taking a bath, going for a walk, planning something to get out of the house or giving someone a call.

3. Develop new coping mechanisms 

When we’re emotional eating, food is really just serving as a coping mechanism.  Food is something that makes us feel better and gives us brief or temporary relief from our emotional pain.  However, there are two types of coping mechanisms.  Coping mechanisms such as alcohol, smoking, food, gambling and shopping give us temporary relief from emotional pain and distress but they then also tend to make us feel much worse or guilty afterwards. The American Psychological Association points out that after stress causes someone to overeat on unhealthy foods, around half of all individuals will feel disappointed in themselves, many individuals will feel bad about their bodies and over a third of people will feel lazy or sluggish.  

However, there is also a second type of coping mechanism which can include things like talking to a friend, exercising, going for a walk, meditation or doing something relaxing such as having a massage, and these coping mechanisms tend to make us feel better in the short term but also in the long term.  So if you find yourself comfort eating a lot, it can be a good idea to try and switch out this coping mechanism for something that will serve you better long term. Perhaps in these moments of stress, you can arrange to meet up with a friend, hit the gym or even book a massage. Gently transitioning from the unhelpful coping mechanisms to more helpful coping mechanisms can really help you to move away from comfort eating. 

4. Ask yourself how you will feel AFTER you eat that food 

One way to help yourself to transition to more helpful coping mechanisms is to get into the habit of asking yourself “How will I feel after I do this”? As you ask yourself that question, consider how you might feel 1 hour after you make a choice but also perhaps 3 hours later or even the next day or a week later. Typically when we eat for emotional reasons it tends to make us feel guilty and down afterwards and reminding ourselves of this as we go to make that choice can be helpful.  On the other hand, it can feel like a lot of effort to drag ourselves to the gym or to go and meet a friend when we’re feeling down, however ultimately we can feel much better for doing so.  

5. Make sure you’re getting a good night’s sleep 

When we’re tired, everything feels more challenging. It can be more difficult to control our thoughts and our emotions when we haven’t had enough sleep. We’re also more likely to comfort eat when we’re tired. Therefore, really prioritising getting enough sleep but also good-quality sleep every night can be a very helpful tool to manage comfort eating. 

6. Remember that alcohol can derail your healthy eating plans too 

Often you may turn to alcohol instead of food to cope. You may think that having some pints or a few slim-line G&Ts won’t affect your weight goals, however, it can be very difficult to regulate or moderate your alcohol intake when you’re feeling stressed or sad. Drinking too much can then make you crave indulgent foods (either just after you have had a drink or the next day when you’re feeling hungover).  So you may be tempted to turn to alcohol instead of food as a coping mechanism but know that long term this can not only be an unhelpful coping mechanism but can also drive you to overeat and gain weight too. 

7. Write down how you’re feeling and the thoughts that you’re thinking 

Research suggests that low mood and depression can make us more prone to comfort eating. Therefore, using tools to boost your mood can be a very helpful way to prevent comfort eating.  Regularly speaking to a coach, therapist or counsellor is a great way to develop more self-awareness and prevent persistent low mood. However, if that option is not available to you, it can also be helpful to regularly take some time to write down how you’re feeling. Writing down our thoughts and emotions means that we’re able to truly process and deal with them rather than just suppressing them with food. Keeping a daily journal by asking yourself the following questions can be helpful: 

  • How am I feeling today? (It can help to look up an emotions wheel online to get as many words as you can to describe your emotional state)
  • What am I thinking about or focusing on that is making me feel this way? 
  • What would make me feel better about any things that I am thinking about that are making me stressed/sad/anxious? 

8. Try not to be too hard on yourself 

Often the reason for comfort eating or emotional eating is because we feel bad about ourselves and our bodies.  If it feels as though the weight loss journey is taking too long and we’re not making enough progress quickly, we can end up feeling down and frustrated.  These feelings can in turn cause us to want to turn to food to cope.  We may also feel like giving up on our journey if it feels as though it’s taking too long.  It can be helpful to remind yourself in these moments where you feel bad about your body or your progress that it’s much more helpful to achieve your goals gradually and over time. Aim to celebrate how far you’ve come rather than focus too much on how far you still have to go. 

The bottom line

We all comfort eat from time to time. However, comfort eating doesn’t have to get in the way of your health and weight goals.  If you’re turning to food to cope regularly, it can help to figure out what other coping mechanisms you can turn to in these moments of stress, sadness or anxiety instead.