For many of us, whenever we’re under stress or distress, there’s nothing like comfort food to make us feel better. After all, there’s a reason it’s called comfort food. So, if you get uncontrollable food cravings when you’re emotional, you’re certainly not alone. Unfortunately, that feeling of comfort is short-lived when you realize you just sabotaged your healthy eating efforts.
It’s not completely understood why certain foods (typically fatty, salty, or sugary foods) help us calm down or cheer up when we’re facing a difficult situation, but there is a definitive link between food and mood. It may be that the food provides a distraction from our problems or causes a chemical reaction in our brain. But emotional eating can be avoided by making a few lifestyle changes.
Alleviate stress. Stress is one of the most common reasons for emotional eating. To keep stress at bay, consider practicing yoga, meditation, or deep breathing techniques.
Decrease temptation. Avoid grocery shopping or dining out when you’re feeling emotional so you don’t impulsively buy unhealthy foods. Also, remove unhealthy foods from your home so they’re not easily within reach.
Try other foods. Studies have shown that it’s not just comfort foods that provide relief from stress and sadness. The very act of eating seems to have a similar comforting result. Next time you’re feeling emotional, try reaching for a piece of fruit, veggies, yogurt, or other healthy snacks, and take note of how you feel after eating.
Don’t eat if you’re not hungry. This is not always easy when you’re in an emotional state and want quick relief, but if you can take a moment to think about whether you’re hungry, it may help you avoid emotional eating.
Lean on others. Next time you’re feeling stressed or down, reach out to friends or family. Meet up with them to go shopping, take a walk, or do anything else that lightens your mood, but avoid situations in which unhealthy foods are readily available. For example, if you’re tempted by buttery popcorn and sugary soft drinks, it’s probably best to not go see a movie.
Trade food for fitness. Physical activity can be much more effective in alleviating stress and improving mood than eating comfort food. However, we tend to reach for food because it’s more convenient. Whenever you feel the urge to eat unhealthy foods when you’re emotional, go for a walk, jog in place, dance around the room, or hit a punching bag. You may be surprised how much better you feel.
We all have moments of weakness when we scarf down a doughnut (or three) to make us feel better emotionally. You should never beat yourself up for sabotaging your healthy diet. That can just add to your stress and lead to more unhealthy eating. Conquering emotional eating is truly a matter of deciding whether your emotions are going to have control over your decisions, and then making lifestyle changes to prevent emotional eating in the future.
Dr. Marjorie Broussard is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Cinco Ranch Clinic. She helps her patients manage chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Her clinical interests also include preventive medicine and women’s health.