Even with all of the nutrition know-how, resources and willpower under the sun, your healthy-eating intentions can dissolve in a flash when stress, sadness or boredom take over. The good news? There are ways to break the cycle and stop emotional eating.
Try these nine expert- and research-backed strategies to regain your balance and nix this unhealthy habit.
1. Switch Your Fan Focus
Whether you're an avid watcher of football or "Dancing With the Stars," research shows that fans who experience vicarious losses are driven to consume less healthy foods.
Case in point: A 2013 study published in Psychological Science found that on the Mondays following Sunday NFL games, intake of foods high in calories and saturated fat significantly increased in cities with losing teams, decreased in areas with winning teams and remained stable in regions without an NFL team or with a team that did not play.
Similar patterns were seen among French soccer fans, but disappeared when fans spontaneously self-affirmed or were given the opportunity to do so. "Self-affirmation involves replacing self-defeating thoughts with statements that are compassionate and confident," explains Susan Albers, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in eating issues, weight loss, body image concerns and mindfulness. This method is effective, she says, because it allows you to rewire your brain to think positively, which can put you in a mindset to make healthier choices.
2. Sip Away Stress
Prone to noshing on sweets when you're stressed? Try reaching for green tea instead.
McKenzie Jones, RDN, a Los Angeles-based dietitian, says there's good reason why many of us instinctively sip on tea to calm our nerves. "Green tea contains the amino acid L-theanine, which has been shown to promote relaxation, boost levels of dopamine and may help lower blood pressure," she explains.
The research agrees. An October 2018 study published in the journal Nutrients found that matcha green tea, specifically, has stress-reducing properties. And bonus: It may help you drop pounds. The combination of caffeine and an antioxidant called epigallocatechin gallate in matcha helped people lose weight and keep it off in a September 2009 meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Obesity.
3. Tap Away Cravings
No, "tapping" here doesn't mean texting. It's another word for psychological acupuncture or Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). And, according to some research, the method might help combat emotional eating.
The strategy, which has been used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias and addictions, involves gentle tapping on pressure points while focusing on particular thoughts and emotions.
A July 2013 study published in the journal ISRN Psychiatry found that, among overweight or obese adults, a group of 96 who were randomly selected for four weeks of EFT treatment experienced weight loss, fewer food cravings and more restraint over eating as well as a significant decrease in depression one year later.
4. Alter Your Social Media Interactions
"Many of my clients have emotionally eaten when Facebook made them feel lonely or bad about themselves," says Albers.
Indeed, a study from researchers at Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh published in the June 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research found that people who spent more time on Facebook had higher BMIs (body mass index, a measure of weight for height) and increased binge eating.
What's the connection? "Social media gives us a peek into other people's lives, which often appear perfect in a static picture," says Albers. According to the study, even when Facebook users experienced an increase in self-esteem (because of the images they posted themselves), usage still triggered a decrease in self-control and unhealthy snacking.
Albers does believe that social media can become a positive tool, however. "Follow sites that focus on the positive, including empowering body-image quotes, healthy recipes and positive people," she advises.
5. Catch More Zzzs
A restless night may result in waking up with a linebacker's appetite and the inability to resist temping foods.
In a June 2015 review published in the Journal of Health Psychology, researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that a poor night of sleep affects appetite-regulating hormones, intensifies emotional stress, increases impulsivity and spikes food cravings. In a nutshell, not getting enough shut-eye is virtually a recipe for emotional eating.
"A wind-down ritual is key for good sleep," says Albers, author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. She suggests choosing a sequence to repeat each night like a ritual, such as 10 minutes of stretching followed by 10 minutes of journaling. "Like a stop light, you don't just go right from green to red: You have to slow yourself down to prepare for slumber."
6. Take the Focus Off Your Weight
Shifting your focus away from your weight or size can translate into less emotional eating, according to an August 2015 University of Liverpool study published in the International Journal of Obesity.
The researchers looked at data across three studies involving 14,000 children tracked into adulthood in the U.S. and the U.K. They found that those who identified themselves as being overweight were more likely to report overeating when they felt stressed. "When we obsess about weight, we tend to get out of touch with our hunger and fullness cues," explains Jones.
To maintain a healthier attitude and healthier eating patterns, Jones advises being selective about whom you spend your time with. "If your social network makes you feel accepted, you'll in turn embrace your body more, have a greater appreciation for your body's physical abilities and be more apt to trust your hunger and fullness cues," she says.
7. Cultivate Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation is an effective strategy for decreasing binge eating and emotional eating, according to an April 2014 review of 14 studies published in the journal Eating Behaviors.
If you feel intimidated by the idea of meditation or worry that your mind will be too distracted, start by introducing a few basic techniques. "Being more mindful can be as simple as taking a deep breath, focusing on the present moment and becoming aware of what is happening right now," says Albers.
She adds that becoming more mindful can help you lower your levels of cortisol, the hormone that drives you to stress-eat. "It can also allow you to feel more in control over what you are doing right now and help you to make your next food decision thoughtfully," says Albers.
8. Thwart Boredom
Having nothing to do may be a trigger for unplanned nibbling, according to a May 2015 North Dakota State University study published in the Journal of Health Psychology.
Researchers found that among more than 550 college students, being prone to boredom predicted bored eating, even in students who didn't have a tough time regulating their emotions. It also predicted eating in response to other negative feelings like depression, anxiety and anger.
One of the best ways to combat boredom is to simply break up your routine, says Albers. "Reach out to a friend, get active, stretch or do something to keep your hands busy, such as a puzzle, knitting or drawing," she advises. "Just changing your scenery by going into a different room can help."
9. Boost Your Healthy-Eating Self-Confidence
Feeling an internal sense of control over your ability to consistently attain your healthy-eating goals may be one of the most powerful ways to prevent emotional eating.
In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Holistic Nursing, researchers found that perimenopausal women who had the highest levels of diet-related self-efficacy, or self-confidence, had the lowest likelihood of binge eating (and vice versa).
To gain confidence in your ability to eat healthfully, Albers advises focusing on the principles of mindful eating, which she reminds us is not an all-or-nothing strategy. "If you slip up and overeat, turn your critical inner voice into curiosity and compassion so you can figure out why it was so hard to pass up that second cookie," she says. "Tell yourself it's OK and continue aiming for awareness and balance."
- Psychological Science: "From Fan to Fat? Vicarious Losing Increases Unhealthy Eating, but Self-Affirmation Is an Effective Remedy"
- Nutrients: "Stress-Reducing Function of Matcha Green Tea in Animal Experiments and Clinical Trials"
- International Journal of Obesity: "The effects of green tea on weight loss and weight maintenance: a meta-analysis."
- ISRN Psychiatry: "Depression Symptoms Improve after Successful Weight Loss with Emotional Freedom Techniques"
- Journal of Consumer Research: "Are Close Friends the Enemy? Online Social Networks, Self-Esteem, and Self-Control"
- Journal of Health Psychology: "Sleep and food intake: A multisystem review of mechanisms in children and adults"
- International Journal of Obesity: "Perceived weight status and risk of weight gain across life in US and UK adults"
- Eating Behaviors: "Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: a systematic review."
- Journal of Health Psychology: "Boredom proneness and emotion regulation predict emotional eating."
- Journal of Holistic Nursing: "Emotional Eating, Nonpurge Binge Eating, and Self-Efficacy in Healthy Perimenopausal Women"