Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

How to manage emotional eating

Hunger isn't the only thing dictating our food choices

If you snack when you’re stressed, chomp on chips when you’re bored, or search for sugary treats at a celebration, you’re likely an emotional eater.

You’re not alone, says NAIT’s registered dietician Nick Creelman. “In Western society, food is not just for nourishment. We use it as a reward or for comfort.” He says emotional eaters tend to turn to treats high in fat, sugar or salt to satisfy cravings, and that can wreak havoc on your diet.

He has some tips to stop you from eating your feelings.

Start a food journal

“People aren’t always aware of their eating habits,” says Creelman. “When you sit down and think about why you’re eating, it can give you an understanding of whether you’re eating because you need to or because it’s habit.”

You may start to see the same unhealthy choices pop up repeatedly in your journal entries. “If there are certain foods that you know you’re always going to try and eat, keep them out of the house,” Creelman says. That way, when your emotions bring on a craving, the bad stuff is out of reach.

“If there are certain foods that you know you’re always going to try and eat, keep them out of the house.”

Follow the 80/20 rule

Try to make healthy choices 80% of the time, incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet and limit processed foods, Creelman says. This allows you to enjoy "treat" foods 20% of the time, without the guilt.

“It’s unrealistic to think that you can eat a perfect, healthy diet every day for the rest of your life,” Creelman says. “We all deserve a treat now and then.”

Find distractions

If a craving hits, “focus on something else,” says Creelman. He recommends trying to say the alphabet in reverse. Once you’ve done it, you’ll have forgotten about that hankering.

People often turn to fatty or salty foods for comfort after a stressful day.

Physical activity can also help take your mind off food. Movement can suppress hunger hormones and reduce stress, Creelman says. People often turn to fatty or salty foods for comfort after a stressful day. He says incorporating self-care practices, like a walk, hot bath or massage can also help stop cravings.