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Understanding Emotional Eating: 7 Easy Ways to Overcome Food Cravings

It's an unhealthy way of dealing with intense emotions, but there are fixes, according to experts.

If you race to the fridge to cope with uncomfortable feelings, you're not alone. This habit is called emotional eating, which is when "you consume food, not for nutrition, not for hunger, but to satisfy some emotion—be it anger, pride, happiness, joyfulness, depression, loneliness, or stress," explains Dr. Terry Simpson, a weight loss surgeon and culinary medicine specialist at Dignity Health St. John's Hospital.

Emotional eating can turn into an unhealthy cycle, leading to binge eating, weight gain, and other unfortunate consequences for your health and overall well-being. But, there are steps to help control the cravings and combat the issue head-on. Here are the most effective and easy strategies for overcoming food cravings caused by emotional eating.

RELATED: 12 Best Foods to Ease Anxiety.

Who's at Risk of Emotional Eating?

According to Dr. Simpson, anyone can be at risk of developing an unhealthy emotional eating habit. This is because everyone emotes and may be looking for ways to feel better instantly through food.

Charlie Abraham, MD, MBA, CHCQM, FACP Chief Medical Officer with Dignity St. Bernardine Medical Center, says triggers for emotional eating can include relationship issues, financial pressure, work stress, or health problems.

However, some people will have a higher chance of emotional eating than others.

"People are more at risk if they don't have ways of dealing with their emotions," says Megan Mescher-Cox, DO Dignity Health St. John. "They're also more at risk if they're restricting their eating already, like through dieting."

Depression can also play a factor, according to Dr. Simpson, given the hormones at play that can make you hungrier than usual.

How to Overcome Emotional Eating

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1. Admit you have an emotional relationship with food

The first step is to understand the issue of emotional eating and address the behavior head-on.

"Often, the desire to eat is not due to hunger but to feel something other than the uncomfortable emotion that you're experiencing," Dr. Cox says. "If you identify that a current emotion is uncomfortable, you can work through the emotion to help address the situation."

2. Exercise Regularly

A young handsome asian man does superman back extension exercises while lying prone on a mat at the gym. Training and strengthening lower back muscles.

One way to help fight off food cravings is to exercise routinely.

"Having a conduit to destress other than food helps reduce cravings and conditions your mind to seek these available options instead of resorting to food," says Dr. Abraham.

"Structured exercise helps the body and mind calm down and resets some hunger signals, which in turn helps reduce emotional eating episodes."

That said, you should talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise or diet program.

RELATED: 20 Easiest & Most Effective Exercises Ever.

3. Be Picky About the Food You're Eating

Couple Enjoying Chocolate
Nadya Lukic/Shutterstock

Dr. Simpson suggests being picky about what you put on your plate as one strategy for overcoming food cravings that lead to emotional eating.

"This helps if you are using food as a reward," Dr. Simpson explains. Instead of looking to a large variety of food to reward yourself, pick one single item, like a piece of dark chocolate. This way, "you are truly going to get a reward in terms of taste" without overdoing it.

4. Eat Smaller Meals Throughout the Day

Family Enjoying Meal Around Table At Home Together

Instead of indulging in big, heavy meals, Dr. Abraham recommends small meals throughout the day.

"Avoidance of big meals, especially close to bedtime, may help keep the hunger and fullness signals in check, which in turn may reduce cravings," he says.

RELATED: What Happens to Your Body When You Skip Meals.

5. Find New Ways of Coping with Your Emotions

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bbernard / Shutterstock

Emotional eating isn't a healthy way to deal with feelings since it can lead to health consequences and doesn't allow you to process negative emotions. By finding healthier coping mechanisms, you can break this unhealthy cycle.

"You can work through the emotion and eventually heal," Dr. Cox says. "This may include seeking help from a mental health professional to help develop new patterns in thinking."

6. Establish a Good Sleep Schedule

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Sleep doesn't just make you feel rested; your body needs that time to support brain function. Dr. Abraham says sleeping also helps reduce cravings and regulate hunger signals.

He suggests getting in the habit of getting a full night of sleep each night and keeping track of food triggers, too. "Document episodes of emotional eating to understand the link between triggers and these episodes." You may find that when you're tired and irritable, the cravings come back.

RELATED: 11 Bedtime Routines That Will Help You Sleep.

7. Be Prepared for Food Cravings

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Kicking unhealthy habits won't happen overnight, and Dr. Cox says it's important to be prepared when an emotional food craving strikes so you can work against it.

"Plan what to do when strong emotions occur: go for a walk, listen to music, or watch your favorite show," she suggests.

Also, you can keep healthy snacks on hand "so if a craving does occur, the food choice is healthier, such as air-popped popcorn or berries."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more
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