Five Steps to Help You Break Through Emotional Eating


“Expression of thoughts, feelings, or needs appear to be an critical aspect of healthy eating behavior.”

-Evelyn Tribole, “Intuitive Eating”

What do feelings have to do with healthy eating? As it turns out… EVERYTHING.

Studies show that people who suppress their emotions rather than acknowledging and expressing them have higher rates of disordered eating, overeating, and obesity. In our modern society where being happy, successful, confident, and motivated all the time (in other words, being a robot) is expected, it’s no surprise that so many people are turning to food to help them cope with negative emotions. It sucks to feel sad, anxious, guilty, self conscious, etc., but you know what? You’re NOT a robot, which means that no matter how much self help you do, you’ll experience a wide range of feelings over your lifetime.

Emo eating isn’t wrong.

Eating in response to emotions isn’t wrong or bad. Food will always be associated with celebration, pleasure, comfort, and whatever other emotions are tied to food for you. That’s not a bad thing! Food serves many purposes besides just as fuel and nutrition. 

Where emo eating becomes an issue is when it negatively impacts your weight and health, and/or if it becomes a way of habitually avoiding dealing with your mental health. 

If emo eating is something you’re working on breaking through, here are five steps I use to help people to minimize eating when they’re not hungry. The process of finding freedom from emo eating may look different for everyone, but this can be a great starting point.

  1. First make sure that you aren’t feeling deprived. Some people mistake their overeating behaviors for emotional eating, when really it’s just their body’s biological response to deprivation. Are you eating enough calories? Are you consuming enough protein, fat, and carbs? Are you eating foods that you enjoy and that are satisfying psychologically and physically? If not, addressing your restrictive eating patterns may be enough to minimize or even eliminate episodes of binge eating. It’s imperative to understand that if your strong cravings are a result of restrictive dieting, the next steps won’t be of much help. If you’re not engaged in strict dieting or restrictive eating and still find yourself using food as comfort, excitement, procrastination, etc., go through the following steps to help you find other ways to cope. 

  2. Exit the kitchen. Or the grocery store. Or wherever the danger zone with the comfort foods is. When you feel the urge to eat but you’re NOT physically hungry, the first step is to get the hell out of wherever the food is. (If you don’t know how to distinguish between true physical hunger and non-hunger cues to eat, getting in touch with your hunger signals can be a great place to start!)

  3. When you’ve taken some space from the food, take a moment to check in with how you’re feeling. Can you identify what emotional triggers are driving the urge to eat? It can be helpful to ask yourself what purpose food would be serving in this situation. Are you looking for stress relief? Fun? Excitement? Pleasure? Comfort? A distraction? Also be willing to ask yourself if eating will actually make you feel better.  

  4. Feel the feels. Once you’ve identified how you’re feeling, take at least two minutes to simply feel those emotions without any distractions. This might be uncomfortable, but stay with it. Identify any physical sensations that are associated with the feelings (tightness in the chest, shallow breathing, etc.) Sometimes just naming, feeling, and/or expressing your emotions is enough to shrink them down to almost nothing. 

  5. Find a distraction and/or address the need. If the urge to eat doesn’t diminish after sitting with your feelings, ask yourself how else you can address the need without using food. How can you bring relief, comfort, fun, pleasure, connection, etc. into your life without using food? If the feelings are too intense, or you’re not sure how to meet the need, sometimes seeking a non-food distraction can help take the edge off (as long as it doesn’t become a means of avoiding the uncomfortable emotions.)

Sitting with your feelings may seem daunting at first, but think of it as strengthening a muscle. The more you can identify, feel, and express emotions, the easier it becomes. You’ll learn that even though feelings are uncomfortable, they can’t hurt you. If you can learn to tolerate uncomfortable feels, you’ll be less likely to use food to shut them down. 

Aim to be as compassionate toward yourself as possible while you practice this. You may find yourself eating anyway, even after taking the above steps. That’s okay, as this takes time and practice. You are learning a new (and very difficult) skill, and it will take some time to nail down.

If you feel like the thoughts and feelings that drive you to eat are too intense to manage on your own, I’d advise seeking out a therapist who can help you navigate through them. 

What has helped you manage emotional eating?