6 March 2024

Tips To Manage Emotional Eating

How many times have you found yourself mindlessly munching on food as a response to stress, anger, raging hormones or boredom? It can be a vicious cycle leading to negative emotions around food with thoughts such as ‘I’ll start again next Monday’. By doing bit of detective work and understanding what drives unhealthy habits can then help you to work out personalised strategies and develop a more positive relationship with food. Start by answering the following questions:

1.  Is it physical or psychological hunger?

Our tummy grumbling is a sure sign of physical hunger and tends to build up gradually. Other physical sensations you may include are emptiness, gnawing or even tightness telling us that we need to eat. Psychological hunger on the other hand, also referred to as ‘head’ hunger is an urge to eat without physical hunger present. Get in tune with hunger by stopping before reaching for food and identify if there are signs of hunger.

2.  Are there any patterns?
At what point in the day do you usually find that you overeat? Here are some common patterns that may relate to you:

  • Watching television
  • Using technology i.e., your phone, laptop, computer
  • Driving in the car or on public transport
  • Late at night
  • When your child/children are napping or asleep at night
  • When you are reading
  • When you skip a meal
  • When you have not eaten enough. Making meals balanced by adding low GI carbohydrates, protein and high fibre veg/salad will help you feel satisfied
  • Social gatherings
  • When you have been drinking alcohol
  • The need to finish everything on your plate
  • Finishing your child’s leftovers


3.  What is the trigger?

Once you find a pattern, it can help to you to work out your trigger for overeating. From going to a party to feeling stressed after work, triggers will vary from person to person. However, you may find that many triggers are emotional in nature so it can help to identify how you are feeling at the point in time when you are feeling vulnerable e.g., feeling lonely at night, emotional during menstruation, frustration after an argument, relaxed after the children are in bed, worried about a situation etc.

Whilst it is normal to experience emotions, it is when we constantly reach for food that it becomes an unhealthy habit. So how can you experience the same feeling without the extra calories?’ Using behavioural distraction is one way to deal with emotional eating:

  • Non-food related distractions: keep your mind busy and distracted from eating e.g., read a book/magazine, go for a walk, gardening, take a relaxing bath, do a puzzle, jigsaw, or crossword, tidy up a room or drawer, call a friend, plan a holiday, play with your pet, mini manicure/pedicure, mediate, listen to music, online meal planning.
  • Look for healthy alternatives. If you really need something to eat, try healthy, comforting alternatives e.g., soup, a cup of tea, hot chocolate. Hydrating with water before you eat can also fill you up and reduce the urge to eat a lot. If it is between meals and you need a snack, try a low GI snack to help you feel satisfied.
  • Make eating unpleasant Try brushing your teeth or gargling with mouthwash or chewing gum. The peppermint taste in your mouth might put you off eating.


4.  What are you saying to yourself?

Mindset matters! If we are thinking in an unhelpful way, there is no chance of a behavioural distraction will working. What we say to ourselves will dictate what we do so it can be useful to understand how our mind works.


Try this simple exercise to help reframe unhelpful thoughts into helpful thoughts:

Unhelpful thoughts examples:  ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­
What do you say to yourself that causes you to reach for food?
For example: “I deserve this”, “Why bother”, “I’ll start tomorrow “I will exercise it off tomorrow” “I’m tired.”
Helpful thoughts examples:
What could you say to yourself to change or stop what you are eating?

For example: “Do I really need this”, “I want to be healthy”, and “You can do this” “I’ll take my mind off this by….” “I deserve to feel healthy” “I don’t want to get diabetes” “I want to lose weight” “Every bite will make a difference”

Write down your unhelpful thoughts and try to reframe them to helpful thoughts:



Habits take time to change:

Habits don’t change overnight, it takes a lot of persistence, practice, and patience. Changing complex eating habits usually longer than 21 days. According to a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychologyi, it takes 18 to 254 days for someone to form a new habit. The study found that it takes on average 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic. If you find that you are not giving yourself enough time to adjust to a new change, you might need to remind yourself of this important study. It can help to track your habits, making sure to track any positive changes you make. We’ve put together an easy to use FREE habit change diary/tracker to help you get started and on track with a positive eating habits.

By Rebecca McPhee, Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) & Health Coach Consultant.


[i] Lally, P et al. European Journal of Social Psychology Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 40, 998–1009 (2010).

Related articles

Translate »