Emotional eating – what it is and how to stop it

How to keep stress eating in check and prioritise your health

Accredited dietitian for Lite n’ Easy Ashleigh Jones shares how to develop strategies to cope with emotional eating, change our relationship with food and take back control over constant snacking.

What causes emotional eating? 


We don’t always eat to satisfy hunger, and for many of us, food can be a way to soothe feelings of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, as well as a way to escape. It is not surprising that people are struggling with their eating right now. In addition to feeling stressed about what’s happening in the world around us, we might be dealing with job loss or other financial stress, concern for our own health, as well as the health of our loved ones. On top of that, we’re out of our regular routine, at home more with potentially more opportunities to eat) and are more likely to turn to food for comfort or distraction.


Many of us have learned to turn to food for quick and enjoyable comfort, as well as a distraction when we’re stressed. While it can make us feel good in the short term, unfortunately, many of the foods we turn to are higher in calories, sodium, sugar and fat. They also lack fibre and protein, which help us to feel satisfied and full.


Emotional eating can mean we’re not eating the most nutritious food which can lead to weight gain, weaken our immune system, impact our mental health and sabotage our healthy eating goals. Eating well is even more critical at the moment when nourishing our bodies, staying healthy and positive is key.


How to stop emotional eating


1. Learn the difference between physical and emotional hunger

It’s important to recognise the difference between eating to satisfy hunger (“tummy hunger”) and emotional eating (“heart hunger”). If you feel the urge to eat outside of your usual meal times, first have a drink of water or herbal tea, then wait ten minutes and ask yourself whether you’re feeling tummy hunger or heart hunger. Use this time to check in with how you’re feeling emotionally. If you’re truly hungry, you’re more likely to be open to eating a range of options, including healthy options such as fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, with emotional hunger or cravings, you’re more like to reach for junk food and not are satisfied with fullness.

Also, think about your meal timing. Physical hunger usually kicks in from about three hours after your last meal. If you last ate an hour or so ago, and it was an adequate and satisfying meal, you’re probably not physically hungry. You should try to give yourself time, and perhaps a distraction, for the craving to pass. This can help you to decide if you’re physically hungry or using food to cope with unpleasant emotions.


2. Plan your meal times 

Eat to manage your physical hunger. Ensure you’re eating healthy, balanced and adequate meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Plan out your meals, so you don’t have to think hard about what you’re going to eat. Avoid waiting until you’re hungry to make a plan as this can lead to making a less nutritious choice at the last minute. If you’re working from home, schedule your meal breaks, so you’re not tempted to snack when boredom or frustration strikes. Unplanned eating can be troublesome for some people, as it can result in random eating and overeating. When grocery shopping, go in with a plan and avoid buying challenging foods that you know you’re likely to reach for in a difficult moment. Out of sight, out of mind!


3. Keep a diary 

It can be helpful to write down what you’re eating and how you’re feeling each day. This can assist you in identifying patterns and the connection between your mood and the foods you’re eating. Be reflective of your mental and physical health rather than judgmental. It’s a learning process! Look at activities other than eating to help support and manage your stress, like talking to family or friends or moving your body outside.


4. Find other ways to cope with how you’re feeling

  • If you’re feeling anxious, go outside for a walk or run, do some stretching and focus on deep breathing.
  • If you’re feeling lonely, call a loved one or set up a group chat session with friends.
  • If you’re feeling tired, have a hot cup of tea, enjoy a warm bath or have some ‘me’ time.
  • If you’re feeling bored, watch a movie/read a book/listen to a podcast, plan your meals for the week, declutter your wardrobe, or start that new craft project you’ve never had the time for.


5. Forgive and forget

And perhaps most importantly, if you have a binge or engage in emotional eating, don’t linger on it or try to restrict your food to compensate. Try to forgive yourself and focus on eating healthfully at your next meal. Dwelling on what you’ve eaten and feeling guilt and shame can sometimes make things worse and can perpetuate the emotional eating cycle. Instead, try to unpack what lead to you feeling that way, and brainstorm ideas of what would be a better way to cope to next time. Do your best to pick yourself up, show yourself kindness and compassion and keep going. You’ve got this!


Lite n’ Easy has a range of healthy meal options including full meal plans, dinners, soups and light meals that are convenient and nutritious, so you can spend less time planning, shopping, preparing and cooking. They can help keep you on track at home by providing everything you need and avoid unnecessary trips to the supermarket. 


Ashleigh Jones is an Accredited Practising Dietitian with extensive dietetics experience working across hospitals, corporate health, private practice and the food industry. A published researcher, she has collaborated actively across several disciplines including genetics, multiple sclerosis and sports nutrition.  Ashleigh specialises in endocrine disorders with particular interest in weight management, pituitary and thyroid disorders, and management of diabetes. Ashleigh is passionate about promoting healthy habits, especially for busy people and offers simple and sustainable nutrition solutions.