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Healthy Living

How to Turn off Emotional Eating - For Good

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 09/30/2010
Last Updated: 12/28/2010

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A friend recently told me that her 17-year-old daughter is obsessed with The Food Network, and would like to one day run her own restaurant. She's become quite a cook, apparently, and presents her mom, who is a working single parent, with the most elaborate meals at the end of a long day.

But then she told me something that caused me some worry…that her daughter has a problem with food; she binges frequently. Either she starves herself, my friend told me, or she eats everything in sight. I don't know why, but for some reason this surprised me; perhaps because I thought that anyone who loves and understands food this much and is able to study it and create it is also okay with eating it and knowing how to eat it right.

But emotions run deep, I guess, and if being seventeen today is anywhere as difficult as being seventeen was when I was a kid, then they can run deep enough to screw with your eating habits. After all, so many 17-year-olds don't feel fully in control of their lives – far from it – and the loss of control filters down to other behaviors like eating. The compulsion of binge eating leads to feelings of disgust, self-hate and embarrassment. And it usually leads to a vicious cycle of restriction and eventually, even more bingeing.

It's not just teenagers who have this problem. The incidence of eating disorders is on the rise in the adult population, affecting more women than men. Some experts think that it is a drive for perfection, a rush to lose baby weight, an obsession with youth. Others think that genes can play a role.

At the end of October I'll be attending the fitness and healthy weight-loss spa, Green Mountain at Fox Run (), to learn all about healthy living without dieting. I'm fortunate enough not to have a personal experience with an eating disorder, but my life has put me around many, many people who struggle with it every single day. It's a fascinating, complex issue. And just so you don't have to wait until November to read about all I've learned at this unique place I thought I'd treat you to some information about emotional eating, published on their website, in the interim. After all, they're the experts on the subject – they been helping women make attainable lifestyle changes for 37 years.

Stopping Emotional Eating

Break the all-or-nothing thinking of dieters and emotional eaters with strategies that foster normal eating.

Is stopping emotional eating one of your biggest challenges to health and fitness? Or is it your attitude about emotional eating (often the result of dieting) that is causing problems? Take this simple quiz to gauge your emotional eating attitudes.


Do you eat to comfort yourself? 

 Yes  No


Do you think it's inappropriate to do so?

 Yes  No


When you eat emotionally, do you feel guilty?

 Yes  No

If you're like many of the women who come to Green Mountain at Fox Run, you answered yes to all these questions. But do you realize that a "yes" answer to the last two questions may be a bigger obstacle to your health and fitness than the fact that you do eat emotionally?     

 completely is not the goal.

Emotional eating is normal. According to Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, CICSW, normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad, or bored, or just because it feels good. Think about it. What could be wrong with a soothing comfort food like hot cocoa after an afternoon of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing? Or the emotional pleasure you get from Valentine's candy from someone special? Or the comfort of a delicious meal after a stressful week at work?

Believing you should never eat in response to emotions is a good example of the all-or-nothing thinking of dieters.

When dieters believe they are being "good," they never eat emotionally. But when they fall off the wagon, they frequently fall prey to emotional overeating or bingeing. That's because they think they have failed - in other words, they emotionally react and turn to food to cope. If, on the other hand, dieters recognized that it's okay to sometimes eat emotionally (and eat foods other than diets usually allow), they would be less likely to emotionally react and turn to self-defeating behaviors, including more diets and disordered eating.     

Giving yourself permission to enjoy eating on occasions that have nothing to do with physical hunger is important to avoid feelings of deprivation. If you eat emotionally to excess, however, it's important to explore why, and begin to develop ways to cope that don't involve food. Alternative coping strategies, including new health and fitness behaviors, are key to stopping emotional eating in excess, and to help you become a normal eater.

So enjoy your emotional eating on occasion. It's good for you! But if you tend to take it to extremes, read more about to discover why you may be doing so and how you can begin to change that habit. 

Here's to happy, healthy eating!

Want to learn more on binge eating?


My current goal is to make anything I want to eat, if I'm feeling emotional. Want a cookie? Get out the baking sheet. Want some chips? Grab a potato. This should cut down on too easy junk food eating and also allow me to know what is really in my food, even the emotional food.

Melanie, Your response to this is so clever. Not only does it give you healthy options, but it cuts down on the cravings, I'll bet, since you have to devote time to cooking - and by the time you get around to it, the craving may have disappeared.

Great tips!

I'm an emotional eater, but not a binger, though. So, that's good ... right?

What an interesting take on emotional eating! I've never looked at it that way before (and believe me, I've looked at it *a lot*, for professional as well as personal reasons).

I don't think I've ever heard that emotional eating is normal. Thank you for stating it that clearly. Like Roxanne said, I'm an emotional eater, but not a binger. Are we good? :)

I think you're safe, Jesaka. Sounds like you've got it under control :)

There are so many intricacies about healthy vs emotional eating, aren't there? I've come to realize that, mostly, the focus is all too often on the food and not on the person and her patterns. I think the solution will be different from each person.

What a solid, well-reasoned post, Sheryl. You're right: Perfection should never be our goal -- and we all tend to get in trouble when it is.

I find food comforting so I guess I do eat emotionally. But I answered no to #2. I really don't think it's inappropriate eating (in my case), though I know this kind of eating can be very unhealthy for some people.

I was worried there that you were going to say emotional eating is bad. Thank goodness it's normal because when my emotions fluctuate, I definitely reach for the chocolate. Fortunately, I don't go for extremes any many super sugary foods don't appeal to me. When I do have a little extra nibble I try to get out and hike or run to not only make up for the calories but to boost my spirits by being active.

Sounds like you have the extra caloric intake down to a science, Kristen. Being active helps with so much, doesn't it?

I like the idea of it being okay to eat because you want comfort or because you're happy. That's a nice take on things. The key is moderation I guess.

PS: Funny Coincidence...Green Mountain at Fox Run is in the town I lived in in Vermont, Sheryl--Ludlow.

Oh! I'll have to say hi to your old homestead when I go to visit, Nancy...

It's hard to stop emotional eating when you're small - because you don't have the weight-loss component, it's easier to trick yourself that it's bad for you. But what you're eating is often a good sign. Do I really need that bowl of cocoa pebbles?

Hmmm...cocoa pebbles...that's your go-to comfort food, eh?

This is a good example of how something that's perfectly okay in moderation can be quite harmful when taken to extreme.

Look forward to reading your report from the field.

Melanie, I like that goal! I guess that's what we end up doing in our house too. While we certainly don't deprive ourselves of what we're craving, eating a small portion of homemade cheese sauce definitely makes more sense than keeping the big tub of queso in the fridge.

And eating your own creations is usually so much more satisfying than any store-bought stuff, isn't it?

Group/social support is important when trying to change behaviors. We often think we can do it alone and it's an issue of personal weakness when we fail. But walking with other people in the journey of coping with life without binging is the best way. Overeaters anonynmous is unknown by many, but is such a wonderful resource.

Thanks for your comment, Rachel. There's something about support from others that really helps get us through difficult times. It's so important to be able to count on like-minded people, I agree.

I confess! I am an emotional eater. I noticed that I have eaten more the last month or so because my daughter is going through issues with her boyfriend of 7 years. I have made a conscious decision not to overeat at night which is the time I tend to eat more. Also, I am not stocking my home anymore with goodies. From now on, its oatmeal in the evening!

Sherry, Stress does it, doesn't it? Maybe you can also do some stress-relieving things at night so you are not tempted to eat, like stretching, yoga, meditation.
Also - I just heard something that resonated with me about snack foods that we cannot resist. DON'T BRING AN ENEMY INTO THE HOUSE. That goes back to what you are saying; that you don't stock your home with goodies. Oatmeal is a great, healthy alternative. Bravo.


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