5 Tips to Handle Emotional Eating

April 20, 2020

A post from our blog, Happy. Healthy. Southie.

By: Alyssa Principe, Registered Dietician

As we are being asked to stay home and limit our social interaction there is no doubt a rise in stress and anxiety levels throughout our neighborhood. These uncertain times can bring forth negative emotions, which many cope with by turning to food. Stress can wreak havoc on appetite which may mean overeating, binge eating, grazing throughout the day or maybe forgetting to eat altogether.

This emotional eating can be a conscious or unconscious habit that may be rooted in a biological response. Feeling stress increases the release of the hormone cortisol, which can ramp up appetite and create cravings for carbohydrates (often our “comfort foods”) because these foods light up the pleasure center in our brains. This gives us a boost in mood…at least temporarily.

Since social distancing has started, we’ve seen a huge spike in the sales of comfort foods like cookies, chips and ice cream. While emotional eating can be a temporary fix, it can sometimes cause more harm than good. Here are my tips on how to handle it.

  1. Recognize your feelings: As mentioned, emotional eating is a short-lived fix for negative emotions. To get to the bottom of the emotional eating, learn to be aware of what you are feeling. Is it stress, anxiety, boredom? What is triggering these feelings? Can you avoid or limit these triggers? For example, maybe the negative news stories exacerbate your anxiety, can you limit your exposure to these? Many people find that journaling can help work through these emotions.
  2. Stay mindful while eating: It is too easy to open crackers & cheese and eat while watching your favorite show, but this almost certainly leads to overeating. Let emotional eating be a choice rather than a habit. When you get the urge to eat, HALT. Are you feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired? If you are not physically hungry, further explore your feelings. “______ happened and I feel _______. I want to _______ but instead I will ______.” This approach by Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN is simple yet effective, and the more you practice filling in the blanks the easier it gets.
    If you choose to eat despite not being hungry, that is OK! Stay mindful about it though. Avoid eating out of a package. Pay attention to how much you need to feel satisfied. If what you portioned wasn’t enough, you can always grab seconds. If there is physical hunger with a craving, include some protein or healthy fat to improve satiety.
  3. Structure your meals: Plan to have breakfast, lunch and dinner around the same time each day. Now may be a good time to practice your meal prep which can be anything from roasting vegetables to use throughout the week to setting up portioned meals. Whatever you do, don’t skip meals! If you feel like you are overeating it is a natural reaction to want to restrict yourself by skipping a meal or snack, but this can lead to fluctuating blood sugar levels which can actually worsen your body’s stress response. This inevitably leads to increased cravings and overeating. You are better off eating consistently throughout the day.
  4. Prioritize you! This means getting enough sleep, and finding social support. Inadequate sleep can increase food cravings. Having support in this time of social distancing can be a healthy coping mechanism to handle stress. Consider making a list of 10 things you can do when you start to feel intense emotions. Maybe it is talking to a friend over the phone, journaling, exercising, meditation or reading. Many apps for exercise and meditation are offering free access during this time.
  5. Be gentle with yourself: These are unprecedented times for us all and there is no right way to get through it. After an emotional eating binge have you ever felt guilt or shame? These feelings may feed into more negative emotions triggering another bought of emotional eating. Before you know it you are in a vicious cycle. Break the cycle and show yourself compassion. If you just binged a bag of chips, brush it off. Consider what triggered that eating and learn from it for the future. You are only human after all.


For more supportive and non-judgmental advice from SBCHC’s health experts, visit our Happy. Healthy. Southie. blog.

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