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How to stop emotional eating: 5 coping skills you can practice right now

White woman stirring a pot on kitchen stove while smiling at a white child sitting next to her on the counter.

It can be tempting to feed your feelings. Instead, try these strategies to disrupt your emotional eating habits.

Our relationships with food can be deep-seated and complex. When you feel low, do you reach for a friendly pint of ice cream? If you’re angry, does a bag of chips take the edge off?

“Sometimes people eat because they feel empty or emotionally deprived. They use food for comfort instead of nourishment,” says Lindsey King, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend's weight loss surgery program in Springfield, Oregon.

There’s a distinct difference between needing and wanting to eat, King adds. “Physical hunger develops over time, first with tummy rumblings, then grumbles, then hunger pangs. But even if you are very physically hungry, you usually can wait for food. In contrast, emotional hunger can come on suddenly, like lightning. It demands food immediately and may not stop even when a person is stuffed.”

Because it can be part of you without you realizing it, emotional eating may be difficult to let go of. But it’s possible to manage by developing coping skills.

Here's how to get started

Try these five strategies to stop feeding your feelings.

1. Identify your patterns.

First, take some time to understand where and how your emotional eating habits started. These insights can help you recognize the feelings that trigger it.

“What you eat, when you eat, the emotions that tie you to food, and the physical activities you may or may not enjoy — we learn all these things when we are young,” King says. “These patterns from growing up are normal. But they could sabotage your healthy weight loss efforts, so it’s good to be aware of them.”

2. Recognize what drives you to eat.

It’s OK to experience different emotions, and it’s important to gain a deeper understanding of why you turn to food to manage them. This means being curious about your feelings and what they’re trying to tell you.

“If you validate your emotions instead of suppressing them, these feelings may stop needing your attention,” King says. “See if things change once you’ve heard them out.”

You don’t have to do this emotional work alone. Consider leaning on a trusted friend or family member, or to reach out to a mental health provider. They can help you see how your eating habits connect with your mental and physical well-being.

3. Think beyond the scale.

When you set goals for a healthy lifestyle, try to take a wider view. “Look at your feelings related to your weight,” King says. “Sure, you want to look different … and then what? Do you also want to like yourself better, be more comfortable with yourself, feel pride and a sense of achievement?”

Take a moment to get clear on your goals other than weight loss and think about the steps you can take to achieve them. This broader approach makes it more likely that you’ll meet your goals.

4. Instead of taste, rely on other senses.

Eating is an immersive sensory experience. If you know you’re not physically hungry, one good coping skill is to use a variety of senses in your activities. This can keep your mind busy instead of relying on food to manage your emotions. Here are some swaps to consider:

  • Sight-based: Taking a nature walk, exploring a pretty neighborhood or looking at exhibits in a museum.
  • Scent-based: Taking time to inhale fresh-cut grass or enjoy the aroma of essential oils.
  • Sound-based: Playing music, listening to nature sounds or turning on a white noise recording.
  • Touch-based: Using fidget toys or stress balls, chewing gum or sucking on mints.

5. Give yourself grace.

If you fall back into emotional eating on occasion, take time to understand why you slipped, without judging yourself. Was it due to feelings of stress or sadness? What could you do different next time?

“The one thing I hear often from patients is ‘this is harder than I thought it would be,’ “ King says. “Remember, a slip is not a failure. It’s an opportunity to learn and get closer to your goals.”

portrait of Lindsey M. King PSYD

Lindsey M. King PSYD

Clinical Psychology
A Wyoming native, Dr. Lindsey King, is a licensed clinical psychologist with a focus on bariatrics. She currently works with patients involved in the bariatric program at PeaceHealth Riverbend Hospital’s Oregon Bariatric Program in Springfield, OR. Her dissertation focused on pediatric obesity management which spurred her interest in the field of bariatric psychology, weight-loss and exercise therapy. Dr. King employs a solution-focused approach to assist clients with identifying their strengths with an emphasis on increasing healthy lifestyle choices to include diet and exercise. Dr. King enjoys hiking, traveling and walking with her American Eskimo dog, Storm.