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How to stop emotional eating – for good

Want to stop emotional eating? Anna Magee spoke to two women about the challenges they faced with emotional eating and found six ways on how to stop 

One in every 28 women aged 40 to 50 now has an active eating disorder, new research from University College London on 5000 women has found. And few seek help. But you don’t have to have an eating disorder to suffer with disordered eating, which for many of us, is underpinned by undigested emotions that we don’t want to face. Here’s a video Healthista has made based on expert advice about how to stop emotional eating.

It happens to everyone

For Carol, a food writer in her 50s, whenever something upset her through the course of a day, she would turn to food. ‘As soon as I felt a hint of loneliness, boredom or frustration, my first instinct was to reach for a chunk of cheese or to stand at the refrigerator and wolf down last night’s leftovers,’  Carol says. ‘I’d eat mindlessly regardless of hunger and without tasting what I was eating.  It would make me feel better for a while, then the guilt would set in.’  A size ten in her 20s, over the years Carol’s weight slowly crept up until two years ago, she was seven stone overweight.

‘I’d eat mindlessly regardless of hunger and without tasting what I was eating

Many of us will occasionally reach for that chocolate bar or bag of crisps at the end of a hard day – there’s nothing wrong with that. woman tired of diet restrictions craving sweets chocolate But if you’re always turning to food in response to uncomfortable feelings and it’s making you unhappy – or fat – it could be time to rethink your eating.  ‘Everybody eats for emotional reasons some of the time,’ says Professor Julia Buckroyd, psychologist and specialist in eating behaviour at the University of Hertfordshire and founder of ‘Emotional eating is a problem if you think it’s a problem,’ asserts Dr Buckroyd.  ‘For example if it is leading you to gain weight or if you are eating in secret and that is affecting your relationships and leaving you feeling ashamed and guilty’.

Real hunger or mindless eating?

In all human societies food has been used to mark life events from births to funerals to coming of age parties.  Food helps us celebrate.  It helps us show our love.  Few of us would change that.  ‘But the downside of growing up in a culture where food and feelings are so closely enmeshed is that not many of us eat only in response to real, physiological hunger, all the time’, says Dr Buckroyd.

97 per cent of women have felt food cravings as a result of something other than true hunger


Businesswoman eating pizza from briefcase

While 45 per cent of obese people regularly binge eat* in response to unpleasant emotions, research from Canada’s McMaster University ** found that 97 per cent of women have felt food cravings as a result of something other than true hunger.

In fact, according to Dr Buckroyd, many emotional eaters may have lost touch altogether with what real hunger feels like. If you need a reminder – it comes on slowly, rarely less than three to five hours after last eating and is usually accompanied by a hollow feeling in the tummy.  It’s often satisfied by any palatable food.  Mindless eating on the other hand is usually done quickly, as a result of overwhelming feelings and can often manifest as a craving for a specific food. That impulsive ‘Ooh I fancy that,’ reaction to the sight or smell of tasty food can also be false hunger.

Two years ago Carol’s doctor suggested gastric bypass surgery as a last resort.  ‘I thought surgery would solve all my problems,’ says Carol.  ‘But I was surprised when my doctor said the operation would only work long-term if I addressed the emotional reasons why I constantly ate when I wasn’t hungry,’ says Carol.

Food has a similar effect to anti-depressant medication

The emotional eating cycle

Why does eating something fatty or sugary make us feel better fast (if guilty later)?  According to experts, you can blame biology – at least in part.  ‘Food helps us feel safe and soothed,’ says Dr Ken Goss, author of brilliant book The Compassionate Mind Approach to Beating Overeating: Series editor, Paul Gilbert (Compassion Focused Therapy), who works in the NHS with emWhite pills spilled out over some woodotional overeaters.  ‘There are studies suggesting food has a similar effect to anti-depressant medication on mood, especially when that food is highly processed and high in fat,’ he asserts. In such studies, scientists used brain-scanning technology to prove that eating foods high in sugar, fat and salt is closely linked to emotional centres in the brain.  So, finishing a packet of Digestives when you’re lonely might make you feel guilty but it can also make you feel better for a while on a chemical level.  ‘Fat and carbohydrate release pain-relieving opoids and calming cannabinoids – class A drug-mimicking substances – into the brain making us feel instantly better,’ says Professor Buckroyd. Problem is, the more we use food as a sedative or a counsellor or a fix for our feelings, the less we draw on other self-soothing options, such as talking things out or learning to comfort ourselves in other ways, she says.  ‘That is when emotional eating can become a habit that’s hard to break’.

Fat and carbohydrate release pain-relieving opoids and calming cannabinoids – class A drug-mimicking substances

Learning to eat mindfully

After her surgery Carol read a book called How Much Does Your Soul Weigh?: Diet-Free Solutions to Your Food, Weight, and Body Worries by Darie McCubbrey which helped her discover the difference between real hunger and what she calls ‘head hunger’.

Happy couple cooking together at home and looking very playful - healthy eating concepts

‘It taught me about eating mindfully which is about always pausing before you stuff some food in your mouth the moment you see it,’ she explains.  ‘Every time I went to eat something I would ask myself, ‘’Hang on, when was the last time you ate?’ If the answer was an hour ago, then I knew I had to go for a walk or call a friend or take a bath.  They were only diversionary tactics but it was surprising how, after 20 minutes or so, the impulse would pass when I wasn’t truly hungry.  If I still felt hungry after that, I would eat but the pausing gave me time and space to make a healthier choice’. Since then, Carol has lost six and a half stone and is ten pounds off her goal weight.  ‘Surgery has helped, but deep down I know that changing my body permanently has been about changing my relationship with food and that had to begin in my mind.’

deep down I know that changing my body permanently has been about changing my relationship with food


10 tips for being mindful everyday that will change your life

Finding non-food comfort

 Woman eating at nightFor Ladan Soltani, a fitness presenter in her 40s and author of Fabulous Fitness at 40: The fitness gurus guide to transforming your life through mastering your mind and body, having grown up in a family in which emotions were often suppressed meant that she had no way of expressing or comforting herself when negative emotions surfaced, so she turned to food.
‘Throughout my teens and 20s I would eat little all day then go home and stuff myself in the evenings,’ she remembers.  ‘It happened over and over again for years.’

Throughout my teens and 20s I would eat little all day then go home and stuff myself in the evenings

To help break the cycle Ladan turned to therapy. ‘It helped me discover that it was always on days when I was suppressing my emotions that I would go home and soothe myself with food,’ she remembers.  ‘I realised that when I expressed my feelings, say by calling a friend or telling someone how they had upset me, my feelings would dissolve and I didn’t want to turn to food’.

Meditating woman

Ladan has since discovered other ways to soothe her uncomfortable emotions. ‘Now, I do ten minutes of breathing meditation to centre myself every morning,’ she says. ‘That calms and grounds me, setting me up to be kinder to myself all day.  I now turn to food much, much less than I did in the past and my weight has been stable for over a decade.’  Her advice? ‘Find things you love doing such as yoga or meditation, a good comedy or going to see a movie.  And keep a solid network friends who understand – a sympathetic ear can help when that Snickers bar is calling you!’

Overcoming emotional eating begins with learning to care for yourself and to accept that negative feelings will pass and cannot hurt you, says Professor Buckroyd.  ‘Crucially, it requires learning to manage your emotions in ways that don’t involve food,’ she says.

keep a solid network friends who understand – a sympathetic ear can help when that Snickers bar is calling you!

Each time we hoose not to turn to food in response to an uncomfortable feeling is a small victory. ‘Whenever you change your habitual response from ‘Oh I don’t want to deal with this I will have a packet of M&Ms’ to something that provides you with non-food comfort or distraction by saying for example ‘I will do a few minutes trimming the hedge or reading a book, because that makes me feel good,’ you strengthen new, healthier associations in your brain,’ says Dr Buckroyd.  ‘Do that over and over and eventually you will turn to the non-food activity for comfort more often than you turn to the bag of crisps.  It takes time but it works.’


Am I an emotional eater?

If you say yes to even one of these, you may be eating your emotions 

1. Is your eating ruled by your emotions?

‘Draw a line from left to right across a page,’ says Professor Buckroyd. ‘On the far left put your weight or dress size as early as you can remember it and on the far right, your weight or dress size now.  Then in between plot the rises and falls in your weight at different times in your life.  For example, if you went to university and gained a stone or had a bad break up and lost two stone.  If the majority of fluctuations are in response to emotional life events, your eating may be governed by your emotions

2. Do you feel out of control around food? 

‘Do you feel that the fridge or pantry are often calling you and you feel you have no choice but to go and take something high in fat or high in sugar,’ asks Dr Goss.  ‘Most emotional eaters are drawn to high-fat, high-sugar foods as these provide the fastest effect in calming the brain and many will feel they can’t control these urges.’

3. Are you using food as a ‘fix’ for your feelings? 

‘Do you eat quickly, rarely stopping to taste or chew what you’re eating,’ says Dr Goss.  ‘You may be self-medicating your feelings with food.’

‘Many people will say yes to number 1’, says Dr Goss.  ‘But if you say yes to 2 and 3 as well, you may want to think about working on ways to change.’



1. Distract yourself  

‘Distractions can be a great way of ‘buying time’ when we’re feeling distressed and want to turn to food,’ says Dr Goss.  ‘These can be practical such as gardening, knitting or reading, mental such as planning your next holiday or emotional where you watch a favourite movie that always makes you laugh.’

Woman Gardner Taking Care Of Plants, Prune.


2. Learn self-soothing 

‘Each time you go to eat something, ask yourself ‘What is this about?’ sugg
ests Dr Buckroyd.  ‘This makes you more aware of what you’re doing and whether you’re eating in response to a feeling or to real hunger.  It helps you be mindful around food.  Then, ask yourself ‘What else would make me feel better?’  Would calling a friend to talk things out? Texting my partner?  Having a hot bath? Soothe yourself in ways that don’t involve food and you will turn to food less and less.’

tea and a natter

3.Spot your triggers 

‘Keep an eating and feelings diary,’ suggests Dr Goss.  ‘Each time you eat something write down the situation, who you were with, what you ate and how much and how you felt before, during and after eating.’ Over time you will discover that certain situations, people and feelings lead to you overeat more than others,’ he says.

Having breakfast in early morning

4. Establish regular eating 

‘Learning to not overeat emotionally isn’t about going on a diet.,’ says Dr Goss ‘We recommend people nourish themselves at set mealtimes, by eating a good breakfast, lunch and dinner and two snacks in between, and by trying to limit the number of times they skip meals or eat impulsively, at least until they have learned to feel real hunger and manage their emotions better.’

5. Really enjoy your food 

‘Choose food you like and eat it slowly, savouring every bite,’ says Dr Goss.  ‘Often people who eat to numb their emotions eat quickly, rarely tasting food and subsequently feel guilty about eating that may have forgotten the pleasure of slowly and mindfully eating a delicious plate of home-cooked, nutritious food’.

closeup on young woman eating camembert

6. Be self-compassionate 

New Compassion Focused Therapy or CFT encourages people to be kind to themselves and to accept that their emotions, however difficult or frightening, will always pass without their turning to food.  ‘Being self-compassionate means being kind to yourself and more relaxed about your eating, rather than self-critical,’ says Dr Goss. ‘This is first step on a journey toward new ways of eating.  Above all, if you occasionally turn to food to feel better, don’t beat yourself up.’

Close-up of a happy young blonde woman blowing dandelion


*This figure is from Dr Buckroyd

**craving research is here it’s by Harvey P. Weingarten



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