Break the chains of emotional eating

Are you hungry when you eat? Or do you eat out of habit… or worse, out of sadness or boredom?

I’ve recently written about the food trap that keeps you dieting and failing. That trap is emotional eating.

Food traps are eating disorders that, when you fall into them, make differentiating real physical hunger from emotional cravings difficult.

Emotional cravings come on quickly and seek specific foods to satisfy the ’need’, whereas real physical hunger comes on slowly over time and there is not a specific food in mind as almost anything can satisfy hunger.  So it’s important to assess the emotional eating trap to learn to look to food as fuel.

Intervention techniques for directly addressing these forms of eating disorders can work. These are simple techniques you can use, or share with a loved one, to help overcome the trap of engaging in poor eating habits that are detrimental to your health and wellbeing.

Emotion-based Intervention techniques

When implementing any form of mind-body technique or intervention one must first know why they are doing it, what the method will do for them, and then how to do it correctly.

I want to arm you with a few simple examples of mind-body techniques that you can employ in the moment when you realize that you are eating from a place of emotional need (a craving) instead of physical hunger.

Sit, feel and identify

Practice identifying your feelings before eating. When you are having food cravings, especially for specific items (like donuts, pizza, and other ‘comfort foods’), try to slow down and sit for a moment in silence. Feel your body and hear your thoughts. If you’re experiencing physical hunger, you can satisfy your craving with just about any food. With real hunger, you are not as drawn to sugary or sweet snacks and are more apt to choose an apple or some other healthy alternative that will fuel your body in a healthy way.

When you recognize that the feeling is based in a craving stemming from (or felt alongside) emotions (e.g., stress, anxiety, loss, loneliness, guilt), then take a moment to identify what emotion you are feeling, and pick a method below (or from additional research you may do) to help reduce it.

Reduce anxiety-based food cravings

Anxiety is horrible, but it is often temporary and manageable with some mind-body techniques.

When you have anxiety you may feel over-stressed in proportion to the issue, constantly worried and generally restless.  You may suffer from a sense of fatigue, cold sweats, and a racing mind with unwanted thoughts.

All of this fuels the anxiety feeling and prolongs the length episodes. The desire for relief often sends us back to comfort places and cravings for comfort foods.

As someone who has experience anxiety throughout my life, I have found that the most powerful, and also easiest, way to reduce it is through deep diaphragmatic breathing and relaxation techniques. And here is how you can do that…

Anxiety craving technique

Simply stop what you are doing and close your eyes. Feel your body and regulate your breath by taking even, steady breaths.

Once you have slowed down your breaths you can begin taking deep abdominal breaths with a steady cadence of 4 seconds inhalation and 8 seconds exhalation. This will help slow your mind, reduce your stress, lower your feelings of anxiety, relax your body… and decrease the comfort food craving.

Sixty seconds of this is usually enough to identify that the craving is not real hunger and to reduce the symptoms enough to continue on with the day. If you are feeling anxious you can take a walk or step away from the issue for a while to regain emotional balance. If you feel the emotional need to eat something once the anxiety is calmed, you will feel better about grabbing an apple or some other healthy alternative that won’t spike your blood sugar and make you put on unwanted pounds.

Reduce depression-based food cravings

Depression is another horrible feeling that derails lives. While true depression requires a diagnosis and treatment, here we will focus on reducing the depressive moods and feelings that lead to unhealthy food cravings.

Sometimes it is hard to know if you are anxious or depressed. Depression generates feelings of sadness, apathy, loss of interest and less happiness. Symptoms can include lack of sleep or too much sleep, lethargy, loss of appetite, lower self-esteem and so on.

While loss of appetite is one of the signs of depression, many try to make themselves feel better by eating comfort foods. It’s easy to displace the feelings and emotions associated with specific foods with a better place or time in your life. This would be ok if the foods chosen were healthful. In most cases it’s not, however, because junk food, cake, and pizza acts as mood and energy boosters. But eating these foods regularly can lead to high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

Again, clinical depression requires professional diagnosis and treatment. However, feeling depressed or blue and allowing this to create food cravings can be identified and reduced. One of the easiest ways is to refocus you attention with this positive association techniques.

Depression craving technique

When you are feeling depressed and having food cravings, and are about to reach for that big bag of Doritos, stop and take a moment to realize that this is not real physical hunger and that devouring that bag won’t provide a positive feeling. In fact, it will make you feel worse after, even inducing feelings of self-loathing.

To overcome this craving, simply refocus your thoughts and emotions with positive associations. Play some music that makes you feel extra happy or inspired. Music has the power to uplift energy and emotions and is associated with a whole host of memories. So pick music that you associate with positive and happy times or people.

You can also look at photos that generate pleasant memories of people, places and events.

Taking a nice walk or brief run or visiting friends can lift your mood. And once the mood is lifted and the energy raised, the food craving generally dissipates.

Additional craving techniques

Sometimes we cannot differentiate the craving mechanism or we have too many of them. To reduce these cravings and get back on track, try these powerful techniques:

Mindfulness – By experiencing the act of eating fully in the moment you can derive a pleasure and satisfaction like never before. And once you employ this practice as a habit, you will be less likely to have food cravings, or succumb to them, because you will prefer to eat healthy food mindfully. Just slow down, taste fully, and experience your next meal.

Operant conditioning – Also known as Task Interference, this method uses cognitive (mental) tasks to reduce food cravings. An example is to imagine unrelated events (e.g., scent of perfume, image of tropical sunset) interrupt the food image/emotion connection.

Attention redirection – When eating in social settings we tend to be unaware of just how much we are eating and drinking. A great way to change this behavior is to engage in conversation and exchanges with others as the primary “activity” of the social time. This places attention on the interpersonal aspect rather than on the food aspect.

Ask yourself questions – before opening the bag of chips or drinking down the milkshake, slow down and ask yourself a few simple questions.

“Am I really hungry or am I thirsty?”

Often thirst is mistaken for hunger so drinking a glass of water will often sublimate the hunger feeling.

“Is this what I want?”

When eating emotionally we generally don’t think about what we want. Slow down as ask yourself if eating this is really what you want or would you feel better implementing any of the above techniques?

“Will this feel good in my body?”

When we eat emotionally we don’t feel better afterward. We feel worse because our body rejects the sugar rush or the carb overload or feelings of self-resentment and disappointment about what we just ate crop up; which can lead to more anxiety and depression and eating disorders. Slow down and just consider whether eating that food will feel good going inyour body afterwards, or will it only be temporary pleasure while consuming it.

“Will this make the situation better?”

When we eat from an emotional place, rather than from real physical hunger, we find that we do not feel better afterward. The food does not make us feel better about the anxiety or depression or other reason we are craving. It only makes you feel different alongside the emotions. As such, the situation is not changed yet the state of health is.

If your cravings are related to emotional eating, be sure to take any action you can to uplift your energy and emotional state. Better eating will come from there.


Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.