food is part of how our culture celebrates, grieves and
processes things. “If someone comes in to my office and
says ‘My mom died and I’ve been eating casseroles for two
weeks,’ nobody is going to pathologize that and say that’s
a problem,” Gorman said. “But if someone comes in and
says their mom died two years ago and they’ve been eating
casseroles nonstop ever since, that’s a different situation.”
Given that emotional eating can sometimes sabotage
diets and create a lot of guilt, what is a stress eater to do?
Gorman weighed in: “I always say ‘the opposite of stress
is not eating. The opposite of stress is relaxation.’ So really
what we need to do is to teach the coping strategy of
relaxation.” Another example, if a person is lonely, eating
does not satisfy the emotion of loneliness. However, some
kind of interpersonal enjoyment, such as bonding with
friends or family, would pacify loneliness and fulfill the
So how do we know if we’re eating emotionally and how
can we keep it in check? If you are not eating out of physical
hunger, but you are feeling an emotion and eating, Gorman
suggests you are likely eating emotionally.
Paying attention to what you are eating and why —
or eating mindfully — is an important step for keeping
emotional eating in check. Gorman suggests that when you
have a craving, ask yourself some questions:
• Why am I reaching for this?
• Is it because I am physically hungry?
• When is the last time I ate?
• Do I have a headache or is my stomach rumbling?
If you just had dinner an hour ago and you are not feeling
any physiological need, say to yourself, “This does not seem
like hunger, this is more of a head hunger or craving.” At that
point, ask yourself:
• What else is going on? • Am I bored?
• Am I stressed? • Am I upset?
• Am I trying to make something
unpleasant more pleasant?
Gorman suggests that when trying to curb emotional
eating, look for alternatives to soothe the emotion or take
your mind off it. If you are stressed, go for a walk, put
on some music you like or change the lighting. If you are
lonely, call, visit or email a friend, or reach out on social
media. Evaluate all the alternatives.
When a craving or the need to eat emotionally strikes,
the feeling may seem to last forever, but cravings really may
only last around 30 seconds. To get over the craving hump,
some people use tricks such as:
• brushing teeth right after dinner (if you don’t want to
brush again, you’re likely not to eat again)
• reach out to a friend or talk to a partner or spouse
• snap a wristband or headband to distract yourself until
the moment passes
Gorman also suggests writing down emotions and
exploring “Where am I right now? How am I feeling? What
are my options?” Looking at the answers on paper can
help you be clear that the emotional eating is not worth the
potential health consequences such as weight gain, high
blood pressure or diabetes that may be associated with
consistently making bad food and portion size choices.
In other words, weigh the pros and cons and then make a
conscious choice. No doubt, sometimes you will still choose
to eat emotionally, and that is fine occasionally, particularly
if you choose healthy food when you do. “I’d rather
someone be proactive in choosing to eat than being reactive
in choosing to eat,” Gorman said.
If you deem that emotional eating is a true problem for
you, because it is sabotaging your weight or your health, it
is reasonable to think about going to see a therapist, such
as a counselor, social worker, or psychologist. Having a
care team with a dietitian covering the nutritional element
and a psychologist covering the behavioral element can be
especially helpful in addressing negative eating patterns and
making healthier food choices overall.
Even if you are an occasional stress eater and you inhale
a few cupcakes after being stuck in traffic, you can still live
a healthy life. Gorman recommends the 80-20 rule, meaning
you commit to making healthy choices at least 80 percent
of the time and loosening the reins no more than 20 percent
of the time. “You don’t have to be 100 percent healthy 100
percent of the time. If you make healthy choices 80 percent
of the time, that’s pretty darn good and you should feel good
about that,” he said.
Looking at the answers on paper can help
you be clear that the emotional eating is not
worth the potential health consequences.