How to Stop Emotional Eating: 7 Mind Tricks That Really Work

Updated: Mar. 16, 2022

With emotional eating, the real problem is not in our kitchens, but in our minds. Here's how to arm yourself with strategies to beat temptation, from Cleveland Clinic psychologist Susan Albers in her new book '50 More Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food.'

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person writing in a journal

Stop emotional eating: Write a 5 x 5 list

Distraction gets a bad rap in our culture: it’s associated with mindless behavior like texting while driving (or walking, for that matter) or with a lack of focus. But distraction—when it means redirecting our attention in a focused, purposeful way—can be one of your best weapons against emotional eating. It “can shake loose thoughts of eating and put an end to the loop of food chatter that makes you mindlessly munch,” writes Susan Albers, PsyD in 50 More Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. “By giving yourself something else to do or focus on, you give yourself time for the thought about food or the emotion driving you to eat to cool down and dissipate.” Trying this exercise: Take out a piece of paper, and write down five quick lists of five items each: five people you can call when you feel down, upset, or angry; five ways to relax (ex: take a hot shower); five places to go to calm down (ex: your porch); five things you can say to yourself under stress (ex: “This too will pass”); and five activities to distract yourself (ex: watch a show on Netflix). Display this list on your refrigerator or a kitchen cabinet. Next time you’re driven to snack to soothe yourself, look at the list and choose one of the 25. Do it for five minutes, and be sure to give it your entire attention.

Women talking over coffee at a restaurant

Stop emotional eating: Map out the emotional territory ahead of you

Sometime over the weekend, sit down, grab a piece of paper and a pen or pencil, and sketch out your route for the next week (successful people do this, too!). Not streets and highways: Just create a rough map that contains all your planned stops (work, school for a parent-teacher conference, doctor’s appointment, movie theater with the family) as well as possible detours (a supermarket trip, a mall run). Then, select an icon that symbolizes emotional eating—Dr. Albers suggests a doughnut—and put one at the places (a meeting to ask your boss for a raise, brunch with your in-laws) that could trigger emotional eating. “Having a map laid out for your week that clearly identifies problematic events may help you be aware of them,” writes Dr. Albers. Then, plan ahead. If you know you’re likely to stress-eat at brunch, for instance, look at the restaurant’s menu online beforehand and select a delicious yet healthy option so you don’t binge on Eggs Benedict. Here are some things geniuses do every day that you may want to add to your to-do list, too.

woman holding a meditative pose with hands pressed together

Stop emotional eating: Squeegee your insides

We all know it’s a good idea to take a deep breath when we’re stressed, but doing it is another matter. Dr. Albers suggests this fun visual trick: Inhale deeply, and picture a squeegee (yes, like the kind you use to clean a windshield or a window) somewhere near your head. Slowly exhale as you imagine it wiping clean your insides—complete with all your worries—from your head down to your toes. Repeat three times. Here are some more quick strategies to relieve worry and stress.

Black woman holding a mug and staring thoughtfully

Stop emotional eating: Speak to yourself like royalty

Emotional eating is often accompanied by self-criticism, with your inner voice saying toxic comments like “I’m a failure,” “I never do anything right,” or “When will I ever learn how to cope with disappointment?”—which sends you straight to the nearest drive-through. Even though they’re fleeting, these remarks are like acid rain on your well-being, gradually eroding it. The next time you catch statements like these going through your head, give yourself distance by shifting into the third person. In her book, Dr. Albers provides an example from King James—as in basketball great LeBron James—who said at his infamous 2010 decision press conference, “I wanted to do what’s best for LeBron James and to do what makes LeBron James happy.” When you think, “I really messed up,” switch that instead to “[your first name here] really messed up.” It may seem like an insignificant shift, but try it and you’ll see it can help stop the negative thought loop playing in your head and give you some perspective. These are other tips to boost confidence (when you’re feeling anything but). Or try these 17 tricks to prevent a weight-loss plateau from derailing your weight loss journey.

person reading a magazine and drinking a cup of coffee

Stop emotional eating: Ground your mind

“Grounding techniques are a powerful way to support yourself through heavy emotional times,” writes Dr. Albers. “They help to bring you back to the present moment, preventing you from being swept away by your feelings and resorting to mindlessly eating.” Here is one great grounding tactic for the brain espoused by Dr. Albers. Pick up a book or magazine, flip through it, and choose a passage. Read it backward to yourself—start with the last word in the passage and continue until you reach the very first word. Do this with two more passages.

woman holding halves of an orange

Stop emotional eating: Ground your body, too

There are many different ways that you can jolt your body into the here and now and out of your head. A few that Dr. Albers recommends: Hold a piece of ice and feel it melt between your fingers; bite into a a slice of lemon, lime, or grapefruit; place your hand under cold or hot water; dig one of your heels into the floor; sit down in a chair, grab the arms or seat tightly, and release.

woman playing with her dog on a couch

Stop emotional eating: Leave your worries on the doorstep

Many of us have developed the not-so-good habit of getting home, putting down our stuff, and immediately heading to the kitchen to bury our feelings in coffee cake or leftover pizza. Create a new homecoming habit. As soon as you enter your home, shed your shoes and belongings and say out loud, “I leave my troubles here.” Next, replace the customary trip to the kitchen with a non-food activity that brings you pleasure, like putting on music, hugging your dog or cat, or admiring the view from a window. Do this every day for a few weeks, and you’re on your way to building a new ritual.

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A toolkit for emotional eaters

“You wouldn’t overeat if it didn’t work to calm you down and make you feel better,” Dr. Albers writes. “The good news is that there are other activities and strategies that will make you feel okay but won’t lead to weight gain, regret, or guilt.” You can find dozens of these strategies in Albers’s helpful book 50 More Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food (New Harbinger, 2015), the source for all the advice given here.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest