One of the most common challenges dieters face is eating for reasons other than hunger.  Precision Nutrition did an analysis of the thousands of their clients and found that emotional eating was by far the biggest obstacle they face.  63 percent of their clients reported that emotional eating was a problem for them.  This is probably an accurate reflection of dieters in general.  Thus, learning to deal with emotional eating is a very important skill for long term weight loss.

This is easier said than done.  We are emotional animals and from earlier in life are conditioned to soothe different emotions with food. We celebrate good times with food and mourn losses with food.  No wonder it is such a difficult problem for so many people who are trying to lose weight.  However, it can be done. It requires practice and persistence.  The following is a framework with which to tackle the problem of emotional eating.

Rituals: Our rituals run our lives almost subconsciously.  The main thing that separates us from our goals are our rituals.  Thus, practicing healthy habits until they become rituals is a secret weapon in the fight against emotional eating.  If you eat healthy meals daily, exercise routinely, rejuvenate yourself regularly no matter what is going on, you will be less likely to be hijacked by an emotional experience.

Mindfulness:  Mindful eating and being present allows us to become aware of what we are doing.  This will help to avoid mindless grazing.  It will also help to identify triggers for emotional eating. 

Recognize your emotions:  It is helpful to recognize what is happening when you feel yourself losing control of an experience and descending into an emotional eating episode.  Take ownership and acknowledge how you are feeling.

Breathe: Once you recognize the emotional situation, practice deep breathing exercise.  Take at least five deep breaths to calm your nerves and steel your resolve.

Strategic distraction: Find something to do that will distract you from the impulse to binge on food.  Studies have shown that cravings are most powerful only in the first three to five minutes. Take a walk or call a friend.  Other activities like knitting can keep you occupied for a brief period.  I personally find that getting up to make a cup of tea works. Just do something else other than eating.  In about five minutes you will be much more in control.

Identify the emotion: By now you should be in a calmer frame of mind.  Try to identify what you are feeling.  Label the emotion.  This act alone will give the emotion less power over you.  It also allows you to apply the appropriate response to the situation.  The common causes of emotional eating can be summarized by the acronym HALT.  This stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.  The following is a brief suggestion of what to do for each of these emotional triggers.

Hungry: If you are hungry, then eat. Remember if hunger is not the problem, food is not the answer. Eat a healthy meal mindfully.  Make sure not to have tempting food around.

Angry. Anger is a major cause of emotional eating.  This refers to annoyances that cause us stress.  It is usually because of problems with relationships, money, or health.  The way to deal with this is creative problem solving.  First define what your desired outcome in the situation is.  Then identify the obstacles between where you are and the desired outcome.  Brainstorm ideas and strategies to overcome the obstacles.  Then take the first step towards solving the problem.  You will find this very empowering.

Lonely:  If you are lonely, take a walk or call a friend.  Get busy with a fun activity such as a game.  Watch something fun and interesting.  Get immersed with a new hobby.

Tired:  If you are tired, get some rest.  Make time to relax and rejuvenate yourself. Get enough sleep.  Sleep deprivation can lead to release of stress hormones such as cortisol which can lead to cravings.  Get at least seven hours of sleep a night.

If you are still struggling to overcome emotional eating on your own, get professional help.  Talking to a counselor or a coach can provide much needed support and skills training to strengthen your resolve.  You can also get help from friends, clergy, and your healthcare provider.

Ife Ojugbeli, MD, MBA.