Managing Emotional Eating
Last reviewed by Faculty of Harvard Medical School on January 16, 2013
By Marc O'Meara, R.D., L.D.N.
Have you ever asked yourself "Why do I want to eat right now?" Much too often people eat for reasons other than satisfying hunger they eat when they are depressed, bored, angry, anxious, lonesome, stressed, tired, overwhelmed or powerless. This unhealthy habit is called emotional eating, and it results in weight gain and weight-related health conditions.
Emotional eating is instant gratification for a negative feeling. It's easy and feels good right away, but is usually a Band-Aid for underlying problems. The negative feelings often return and can lead to more emotional eating. As the cycle churns on, weight gain increases.
This type of eating is a negative behavior, something that gives immediate satisfaction but may be harmful to your health. A healthier alternative to negative emotions would be a positive response, like meditating or walking when stressed. The gratification may not be instantaneous, but it certainly is more beneficial to your health.
Emotional eating may start early in life as a reaction to perceived unhappiness or repetitive stress within the family. Therefore, changing this behavior is not as easy as saying "I'm going to stop my emotional eating today!" To reduce emotional eating, you must repeatedly catch yourself in the act and teach yourself to avoid the situation in the future.
An effective process to manage emotional eating is the four-step paradigm outlined in The Wellness Book by Herbert Benson, M.D. and Eileen M. Stuart, R.N., C., M.S. The paradigm is used for stress reduction but is also very effective at changing eating behaviors. The four-steps are to Stop, Breathe, Reflect and Choose.
Many people don't limit eating to when they are hungry. But if you use this four-step process before choosing snacks, desserts or second helpings, you'll be one of the many who have a new tool to limit emotional eating.
Marc O'Meara, R.D., L.D.N., is a senior nutritionist at the Brigham and Women's hospital and the Roxbury Heart Center, and also works in the lipid clinic at Children's Hospital Boston. He graduated from the University of Vermont in 1991 with a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics. He completed his dietetic internship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in 1992.