5 Tips to Combat Emotional Eating: COVID-19 and Beyond

It can be all too easy to indulge; now more than ever. With widespread quarantining due to coronavirus, stress eating may be at the forefront of your dietary concerns. Furthermore, perpetually being within staring distance of your pantry does little to help quell the urge to eat out of pure boredom. Social distancing from food is not as easy as one might hope. 

But emotional eating is not a new phenomenon. Far too many can relate to the concept of food for consolation.

“My dad died 6 years ago and during his illness I comforted myself with food.  I gained 50-60 pounds in a matter of 6-12 months.”

-Emily R., lost 60lbs

Emotional eating, however, is not merely limited to relieving negative feelings – we also often use food to treat. It’s our reward for achievement, a means of celebration, and a fundamental staple in culture and social interaction.

“Social gatherings with friends revolved around food.”

-Amanda L., lost 70lbs

But eating our feelings, fortunately, is a problem with MANY solutions! Read on for 5 tips on how to combat emotional eating. 

Tip 1: Practice Mindful Eating Habits 

Mindfulness has wonderful benefits across the health spectrum, and mindful eating in particular consists of prioritizing full attention and awareness to our eating habits in order to increase intentionality. This shift from mind-less to mind-ful can be a critical turning point in a nutrition journey! Check out resources available at The Center for Mindful Eating to learn more.

“I’m a social eater and I eat when I’m happy. One of the reasons I didn’t diet was I love food so much. At 58 years old, now that I’m eating less, I like food more because I’m not mindlessly eating but being conscious of every food/meal selection. It tastes better because I’m eating less.”

-Terry C., lost 31lbs

One excellent mindful eating practice is to log your food. Not for the purpose of counting calories or macros (though that can be a useful weight loss tool too!); but to review your decisions and break down your motivations for consuming. This kind of awareness can force you to examine the real reasons you are eating- and often, they aren’t hunger. Reflect upon your log each day, and allow that to help drive your future food choices.  

“We all have to eat, but I have an emotional attachment to food. I had to do a lot of mindfulness coaching and learn how my belly and my heart are connected. I learned not to let people or emotions dictate how I eat. I began a food journal included how I felt after each meal.” 

-Lashea B., lost 57lbs

If mindful eating appeals to you, also check out these 6 ways to practice mindful eating!

Tip 2: Reward Replacement

If you’re someone who uses food to reward yourself, try replacing those foods with other treats you’d find just as satisfying! You might be surprised how effective this becomes, as you realize that you were never actually hungry – you just needed a pick-me-up! 

Rather than “I worked from home for 4 hours straight today with no distractions, I’ll give myself a cookie!”  Make it “I worked from home for 4 hours straight today with no distractions, I’ll give myself a pedicure!”

Spend time identifying what things you would find comparably rewarding, and experiment to see what is most effective. Perhaps it’s 10 minutes of additional time on social media, or buying yourself a nice candle or new book. What works best for you?

Tip 3: Find a Strong Motivator

It can be difficult to take corrective action without a compelling why. Find that why, and keep it at the forefront of your thoughts! For me, it’s the idea of a personal challenge to find silver linings in my current situation. With being under COVID-19 quarantine and in recovery from ACL reconstruction, I know how easy it would be to binge-eat and end up 20lbs heavier by the next time I step foot in a gym. I look at every food craving as an opportunity to say “I’m stronger than this, I can overcome this!” But for Marisela T., the motivator was her children.

“I have been overweight to obese for most of my life. I am now a mother to 5 beautiful young kids and realized how important my health is not only to myself but to them as well.”

Marisela T., lost 68lbs

Marisela T. used this motivation to overcome her unhealthy eating habits, and lost 68lbs in 6 months! You may have a trip coming up that you want to look great for, a health problem that demands you get in better shape, or beloved activities that your weight has prevented you from engaging in. Alternatively, for some, money can be a powerful driving factor. Everyone’s motivation will differ, but the important thing is to find a reason that is strong and compelling to you. 

Tip 4: Remove Temptations 

“If there is no opportunity to “use” Marlatt says, a craving typically lasts for less than thirty minutes.  If there is no opportunity to use, there is no inner struggle, and it’s the inner struggle that feeds the cravings. This is true for everyone, but few people give themselves the chance to prove it.”

Ellen N. Resnick, LCSW (Psychotherapist)

We’re already facing limited food accessibility in quarantine – why waste your one grocery store run on potato chips? Make sure you only have healthy options in the house, so when an irresistible craving does arise, you’ve left yourself with only healthy choices. Personally, I’ve learned the hard way that I absolutely cannot buy bread. If it is in the house, I will eat it. Period. My only way to cope with this struggle is by not buying it altogether. 

If you’re similarly self-aware of foods that may be especially difficult for you to resist in times of stress or boredom, do yourself the favor of leaving them on the grocery store shelf. 

Tip 5: Be Kind to Yourself!

When it comes to emotional eating, remember that one slip-up doesn’t mean you’re a lost cause; DON’T spiral! Marty’s flat-tire metaphor stresses the importance of how we treat ourselves when we make a mistake. 

“Even good drivers get flat tires sometimes.  When you get a flat tire, how do you respond? Wouldn’t it be silly to get out of the car with a pocket knife and puncture the other three tires, instead of fixing the one that went flat?  That’s binge eating. You get a tiny flat tire (for example, you eat a cookie), and instead of fixing the tire (getting on with your day: no more cookies), you slash the other three tires (you eat the whole box of cookies).  Yikes! Give yourself a break! A flat tire is not a big deal! We ALL get them!”

-Marty, HealthyWage coach

We are imperfect beings. Particularly when it comes to eating as a function of social gatherings, allow yourself understanding when you do give in and partake. I promise, one happy hour drink over Skype with friends is not the end of the world!

“For 3 weeks total of the year, you can have your holidays. Healthy eating is not cold turkey forever; it’s not that you can never have an indulgence. Healthy eating keeps you on track so you can enjoy (the indulgences occasionally) without feeling guilty. It gives you a little bit of a free pass. Give that freedom to yourself, but give it in moderation.”

– Elizabeth C., lost 40lbs

Emotional Eating is a Battle…

….but equipped with the tips above, hopefully you’re ready to go to war! And if increased accountability is what you need, check out HealthyWage. It’s an online, individual challenge personalized to your weight loss goals! Check out the HealthyWage Prize Calculator, where you’ll enter how much weight you want to lose (10-150 pounds, minimum 10% of your starting weight), how long you’ll take (6 to 18 months) and how much you want to bet ($20-$150/month). Based on that information, the calculator will determine a prize amount, up to $10,000, that you’ll win if you meet your goal! It’s a great way to keep yourself accountable when thinking about reaching for that extra donut.

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Kelly O'Donnel

An avid Colorado outdoors enthusiast, fitness for me means engaging in a lifestyle I enjoy! You can find me on the weekends hiking in the Rocky Mountains with a dog I've borrowed, or traveling to a new place to run an adventure race. A clinical researcher by training, I'm passionate about applying evidence-based principles to wellness.

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