Six steps to stop emotional eating

by Carolyn Thomas

Karen Trainoff knows a thing or two about emotional eating.  Years ago, this Heart and Stroke Foundation dietician was a newly divorced single mother. She gained a whopping  70 pounds after she discovered the nightly comfort of sitting down to a big bowl of creamy mashed potatoes after her son’s bedtime – night after night, week after week, month after month.

Hers was a good example of eating driven by emotions rather than hunger. It’s no secret that food can bring us comfort. But when we eat as a way to cope with problems such as depression, boredom, anxiety, anger, frustration or stress, the results can lead to poor self-esteem and unwanted weight gain, which can in turn increase our risk of heart disease and stroke.

Food is everywhere. And for many families like my own, we not only love food, but our food equals love itself – not merely just a way to address basic hunger. “I knew you were coming, so I baked a cake!”

When I was growing up, we ate because we were happy. We ate because we were upset. We ate because somebody had gone to such a lot of trouble to serve us such a delicious ____ (fill in the blank) and we would never want to hurt their feelings by not enjoying it.

So when emotional eating threatens to derail our health, weight loss or fitness goals, we might consider these additional factors that can also trigger us to eat:

  • Social:  Eating when around other people. Example: excessive eating can result from being encouraged by others to eat, eating to fit in, celebrations or even arguments.
  • Situational:  Eating because the opportunity is there. Example: an appealing restaurant menu, seeing an ad for a particular food, even  just walking past a bakery. Eating may also be associated with certain activities such as watching TV, going to the movies or a sporting event, etc.
  • Thinking:  Eating as a result of negative beliefs or making excuses for eating. Example: scolding yourself for your appearance or a lack of will power.
  • Physiological:  Eating in response to physical cues. Example: increased hunger due to skipping meals or eating to cure headaches or other pain.

I recently watched family therapist Joe Rich being interviewed on this very subject on The Marilyn Denis Show that airs on the CTV network here in Canada. Here’s his quiz to check if you too might be an emotional eater:

Emotional Eating Quiz:

  1. Do you eat when you’re upset or stressed? (Yes/No)
  2. Do you feel guilty after you binge? (Yes/No)
  3. Do you make self-deprecating remarks about your eating? (Yes/No)
  4. Do you use food to express your love? (Yes/No)
  5. Do you overeat after denying yourself certain foods? (Yes/No)
  6. Do you use food as a reward?  (Yes/No)


If you answered “yes” to three or more of these questions, you might be an emotional eater.

If you answered “yes” to ALL of them – as I did! – try Joe Rich’s odd but practical remedy:  try reaching for comfort food with your ‘opposite’ hand for a change (unwrapping that chocolate bar with your left hand, for example) to help slow you down just long enough to rethink that food decision.

Meanwhile, Karen Trainoff has shed all that extra weight by now, addressed her emotional love affair with mashed potatoes, and in a recent Heart and Stroke Foundation article, she listed her six top tips on how she accomplished this:

♥  Find out what’s eating you: Keep a journal to record when you eat, where you are, who you are with and how you’re feeling. Many people are surprised by the patterns that emerge on the page, showing clear triggers for unhealthy eating habits.

♥  Take one step at a time: Once you’ve identified the source of your habit, take steps to break it. For example:

  • you could substitute healthier alternatives to replace junk food;
  • gradually reduce portion size, perhaps by eating snacks from a bowl instead of the package;
  • change your surroundings by moving to a different room when you eat;
  • try out behaviours that might distract you from the urge to eat.

These steps may depend on your personal triggers, and will be different for everyone.

♥  Don’t go cold turkey:  Set small, achievable goals to change your behaviour – that’s the best approach for long-term success. Overcoming emotional eating is about changing habits, which takes time and commitment.

♥  Check your shopping cart.  If you have a weakness for a certain junk food, don’t buy it. You can’t eat what you don’t have.

♥  Talk to an expert.  A dietitian could help you analyze your food habits and find ways to make healthier choices. Locate one near you through Dietitians of Canada.

♥  Get help if you need it. Emotional eating can signal more serious emotional or mental health issues such as depression. If you feel your habit is beyond your control, seek the advice of a qualified therapist.


See also:

Q: Are you an emotional eater, too?


7 thoughts on “Six steps to stop emotional eating

  1. We do love our “comfort foods” don’t we? I empathize with Karen. I too have a real soft spot for buttery mashed potatoes – the ultimate comfort food! Congrats Karen on kicking that habit.


    1. I share your ‘soft spot’ BJ, especially during stress. I wrote about carb cravings during grief here, for example. After my Mom’s funeral in February, I’d crave entire dinners comprised only of hot cross buns. Period. No veggies. No protein. Just hot cross buns. And butter, of course! 😉


  2. Thanks for this Carolyn. The trouble with “Comfort” foods is that they are so darned comforting! We never crave a big bowl of raw cauliflower in the evening once the kids are nicely in bed.


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  4. Karen’s story could have been mine. For me it was the bulk food section of my local supermarket. Just couldn’t resist coming home with bags & bags of those colourful shiny treats. Evening was my downfall, snacking nonstop with my hubby in front of the TV. We had to finally make a complete break in this routine by going on a “TV fast” – and then heading out the front door immediately after dinner with the dog and our walking shoes. Best thing we ever did for ourselves. Not only did we lose weight but we felt more energized, less fatigued and looked better too.


    1. Congrats on changing that habit, Downtown. Sometimes it’s also a problem of “association” – you associate watching TV with snacking, for example.


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