How to avoid comfort eating

Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
Ask Emma

27 May 2020

What are some tips for emotional eating?

Comfort eating, or emotional eating, is using food to make yourself feel better, rather than eating because you are actually hungry.

You may suffer from this if you often find yourself eating a tub of ice cream when you're upset, or diverting to a drive-through takeaway after a stressful day at work.

However, there are some techniques you can try to help avoid your emotions controlling what you eat, such as:

  1. Pausing before you eat
  2. Learning to accept your feelings
  3. Savouring your food
  4. Supporting yourself with healthy habits.

Read on to find out more about these strategies and how they can be incorporated into your daily routine.

1. Pausing before you eat

For many comfort eaters, the urge to binge on food when feeling a certain way may be quite overwhelming and may leave people feeling powerless when it comes to controlling these behaviours.

If you have tried and failed in the past to control your emotional eating habits, you may feel as though your willpower isn't strong enough to break the cycle; however, the truth is, you have all the power to control your cravings when you are in the right mind set!

When you feel the desire to eat, try pausing for 5 minutes, or even 1 minute to begin with. You can use this time to check in with yourself and ask yourself how you are feeling, and what is going on emotionally at this moment.

Don't tell yourself that you can't give in to the craving, as this may increase feelings of stress. Even if you do end up eating, checking in with yourself allows you to have a better understanding of why you did it, and may allow you to have a different response next time.

Distraction is a useful technique to avoid following unwanted cravings. Do ten star jumps; do a handstand (if you can – be careful!); sing a verse of a song; clap twenty times; recite a times table – it doesn't matter how daft the distraction is, so long as it diverts you from the craving pathway for long enough to 'reset' yourself.

2. Learning to accept your feelings

When it comes to comfort eating, you may feel as though it is food that you are powerless over when, in fact, these behaviours often stem from emotions that we don't feel capable of dealing with head on.

Although it can be daunting, facing your feelings, whether they are painful or difficult to deal with, can be very relieving and can stop these emotions from having the power to control your behaviours.

Perhaps try writing down how you are feeling, or even speak to a close friend, family member or doctor. Once you stop suppressing emotions, you may be able to begin to repair any emotional problems that trigger comfort eating.

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3. Savouring your food

When we emotionally eat, we tend to do so very quickly and often mindlessly. This may mean that we miss out on the taste of the food, as well as our body's cues that we are no longer hungry (if we actually were to begin with that is!).

Because of this, comfort eating can sometimes lead to overeating and weight gain, which may increase emotional stress further, and the cycle of emotional eating continues.

By slowing down and savouring each bite, you'll not only enjoy and appreciate food more, but you'll also be less likely to over indulge. Try practising good breathing techniques before and whilst you are eating food. This will help you get into a relaxed state in which you will be able to pay attention to your food and how much you are eating.

You could also try putting utensils down between bites, and avoid watching TV, driving, or looking at your phone whilst eating, as these things can often distract you from fully enjoying your food. You may need to put your phone physically into another room, as it can be very difficult to avoid checking it if it's within sight.

My self-care tip for avoiding comfort eating:

In this video, I discuss the importance of mindful eating and give advice on how to enhance the flavour of your meals. Read on to find out more.

Try paying close attention to the textures, shapes, colours and smells of your food, and think about how each mouthful tastes and how it makes you feel. Practising these techniques can allow you to better understand when you are full, so you can still indulge in your favourite foods without overeating. In my blog "5 ways to avoid boredom eating" I discuss the importance of mindful eating. It helps if your plate of food involves rainbow colours, rather than being mainly beige. This will also ensure more nutrients: double win!

4. Supporting yourself with healthy habits

When you are in a good state of mind, and feeling physically and mentally strong and healthy, this may help you to be better equipped to deal with the emotions that often trigger comfort eating!

If you are stressed in your personal life and feel overwhelmed with your emotions, any difficult situation has the potential to leave you desperate for comfort, sometimes in the form of food. Healthy lifestyle habits can help you get through difficult times without feeling the need to emotionally eat:

  • Try and exercise every day. Physical activity can be extremely helpful for improving mood and energy levels, as well as decreasing stress. Check out our blog "Easy ways to exercise at home" for tips; though remember that something as simple as a 10-minute walk outdoors or a spot of DIY will get your body moving!
  • Aim to sleep for 8 hours every night. If you don't get enough sleep, your body often craves sugary foods to get a quick energy boost. Making sure you get plenty of rest may help to reduce these cravings, and will also help you to think clearly and process your emotions better.
  • Practice relaxation techniques. Try to put aside 30 minutes each day to relax and take time to process your emotions and thoughts.
  • Talk to others. Some people may be ashamed of comfort eating, but this problem is actually very common. Speaking to a close friend or family member may help you to feel more positive about the situation, especially if they have been through it too.


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