3 steps to overcome emotional eating without dieting
Emotional eating can have a positive role in our self care and coping abilities.
Do you find yourself turning to food every time big emotions come up? You're not alone in your experience. Food serves not only to meet our biological needs but also as a source of comfort, memories and safety. Although it is tempting to turn to food rules to stop eating in emotional moments, this only brings up more emotion which fuels an emotional eating cycle. It is more supportive to seek to understand what purpose food is serving and work with your body to provide the self care it needs in an emotional moment.
Learn the role food is serving and how you can overcome emotional eating with these 3 steps.
Emotional eating is not bad, it serves a purpose
First things first, let’s ditch the idea that emotional eating is “bad”. My Overcoming Emotional Eating course clients learn that although it can feel emotional eating is causing you harm, eating is a normal coping tool. It's the underlying triggers, the connection with your body and increasing your non-food coping tools that will be most supportive to stop the stress of emotional eating.
Food is shown to reduce stress and provide comfort. On brain scans, it lights up the pleasure areas of our brain, just as other pleasurable activities do (such as puppies). Carbohydrates even increase the production of serotonin, a hormone that stabilises our mood and makes us feel happy. Biologically, it’s no wonder food serves a purpose during emotional moments.
Emotional eating can become less helpful if it is one of our only tools we turn to when experiencing strong emotions. In this way, it can lead to physical discomfort and bring up further difficult emotions, such as guilt or shame. Likewise, if emotional eating feels disconnected in the moment, we will miss out on the pleasure and satisfaction from the eating experience and it may also prevent us from exploring what we really need to support our body.
Emotional eating can have a positive role in your self care and emotional regulation
As tempting as it can be, "making up" for emotional eating by restricting food the next day will more likely fuel an emotional eating cycle. As will trying to restrict foods that you seek in the moment. Instead of food rules, here's 3 non-diet steps you can take that work with your body instead of continuing an emotionally charged fight against it.
3 non-diet steps to overcome emotional eating
1. Nourish your body and your soul
Before deep diving into your emotions and coping tools, you first must check you are eating enough. Your body relies on getting regular and satisfying foods throughout the day. If you are restricting when or how much you eat, or limiting the types of foods you allow yourself, your body is very likely to crave foods, especially towards the end of the day.
When we then consider that irregular or restricted eating can have direct and extreme effects on mood, such as irritability, low mood and impaired thought processing, as well as indirect effects through poor sleep, reduced social connection and lack of headspace, it is no wonder that you may identify as an emotional eater.
A lack of enough and satisfying foods makes us feel emotional and increases our drive toward food. Putting them together we eat in a highly emotional state.
Nourishing your biological need for energy, nutrients and pleasure regularly throughout the day is the first step to overcoming emotional eating and having the resources to process other underlying triggers and emotions.
To overcome emotional eating you must first prioritise nourishing your body regularly
2. Acknowledge how emotional eating has served you
Even if emotional eating does not feel supportive for you right now, it has served a purpose. Otherwise you would never have started. Finding a way to soothe, when emotions feel overwhelming or you have not been supported to cope with emotion, is an act of resilience. If you did not have food to help you cope, what would you have used?
Rather than allowing emotional eating experiences to trigger a cycle of guilt and shame, try adopt a compassionate approach by exploring how has emotional eating has served you. What feeling or emotion has it soothed or comforted. What, if any, underlying triggers is it numbing or stopping you from finding more supportive ways to cope.
Viewing your emotional eating as an act of resilience that once served a powerful purpose in helping you through, even if now it is no longer the most supportive way of coping.
3. Experiment with other coping tools
When using a tool, such as food, for coping, we should never start by trying to remove the coping tool. This will not make the emotions go away, but rather leave us feeling guilt for using food or even without a tool to cope. A more supportive approach is to explore what other coping tools may better assist you.
Take some time to write down other types of coping tools, try to include a range of different activities such as gentle or intense, alone or with others, indoors or outdoors. When you find yourself feeling strong emotions, allow yourself the opportunity to take some deep breaths and try a new activity from your list. Importantly, give yourself full permission to still choose food.
My Overcoming Emotional Eating Course clients are guided through this in a step-by-step process to explore new tools while also finding calm during an emotional moment.
I offer a way to help you overcome emotional eating with a course that teaches you a step by step framework to bring joy back to food.
Recovering from emotional eating
As you explore these steps it is important that your goal is not to remove emotion from the eating experience. Food is emotional, it is a normal part of being human. Trying to separate food and emotion is likely to exacerbate emotional eating. However, you deserve to feel connected to your eating experience, to feel physically well after eating and to have a range of coping tools available for the complex emotions we feel as humans.
For further support, check out Overcoming Emotional Eating, a non-diet course with a step by step framework expanding on these steps to understand and overcome your emotional eating and bring joy back to food.
Written by Emma Townsin, Registered Dietitian, Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor
My passion is supporting women, just like you, who are tired of stressing over food, to find their food and life freedom.
You can learn how to eat without stress. Get started with my FREE e-book “5 steps to get started with intuitive eating”, explore my self-paced courses or learn how I can support you with specialist support.
Tribole, E and Resch, E. Intuitive Eating: A revolutionary anti-diet approach 4th edition. St Martin’s publishing group: 2020
Timmerman GM, Acton GJ. The Relationship Between Basic Need Satisfaction and Emotional Eating. Issues in Mental Health Nursing 2001;22(7):691-701.
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