Overcoming Emotional Eating & Food Anxiety
Tools for Overcoming Emotional Eating
How to Stop Emotional Eating with Mindfulness, CBT & Gratitude
What is “emotional eating?” And what does overcoming emotional eating entail? All too often, we think the ‘solution’ to our emotions is to ‘turn them off.’ But, in reality, this resistance only strengthens the grip that our feelings can have on us. Today we’re talking about how to stop emotional eating & comfort eating with 3 tools: mindfulness, cognitive shifting, and gratitude.
Contrary to popular belief, emotional eating isn’t just turning to food when we’re sad. It’s turning to food to cope with (or in response to) any feeling—whether it’s stress, anger, boredom, relaxation, or excitement. We may even eat to cope with our anxiety and stress about food. (I sure have!)
On the journey to overcoming emotional eating and making peace with food, it’s taken time to feel that food doesn’t “own” or control me, and that what I eat doesn’t define me. When we’re so caught up in “identifying” with something, it’s hard to separate from it. At times, defining myself as an “emotional eater” made it hard to see myself as someone who was capable of not turning to food to cope emotionally.
In order to shift these ‘identities’ and labels that we place on ourselves, we have to recognize our progress. If we don’t recognize the little wins along the way, it’s easy to feel like we’re not making progress, and we can get trapped by that identity. Reflecting back can help us to stop and notice, “wow—I have grown!”
In today’s video, I share some personal food freedom “wins.” To some, these examples may seem small. But, in the moment of my direct experience, they were huge nods to progress!
Recognizing Food Anxiety & FEAR Foods
For me, overcoming emotional eating and food anxiety started with a willingness to see myself clearly. If I wanted to figure out how to stop emotional eating and comfort eating, I first had to meet myself where I was at, without judgment. And, as with any problem, it started with me acknowledging what I was feeling and struggling with.
Personally, part of my journey involved recognizing the specific foods that I was “afraid” of, and how they kept me stuck. I now call these my “F.E.A.R. Foods”—Foods with Emotional Attachment or Rules. These are the foods that I restricted, and either wouldn’t eat or wouldn’t keep in the house. These are foods that triggered me, foods that brought on anxiety, or foods that I turned to emotionally.
First, I had to admit that I was emotionally attached to certain foods, and that I had rules that I applied certain foods. Then, I had to recognize that foods aren’t inherently “good” or “bad,” and that I am not good or bad based on what I eat. This is “taking the morality out of food,” which is a concept Melissa Urban, the founder of the Whole30, talks about in her book Food Freedom.
How to Stop Emotional Eating – 3 Tools
Overcoming Emotional Eating with Mindfulness
Everything we experience in life is not based on the experience itself, but rather on our relationship to that experience. It’s not even about whether an experience was “good” or “bad,” but rather, how we responded to whatever happened.
Mindfulness helps us shift our relationship to everything we experience. It changes how we relate to what’s happening, thereby affecting our ability to easily shift perspective, see clearly, and move forward in a way that serves us. Mindfulness helped to separate from the storyline in my head and see my F.E.A.R. foods for what they actually were: simply food.
But, it’s not an intellectual understanding we’re after. (Otherwise overcoming emotional eating and food anxiety would be as simple as reading this text.) We have to acknowledge the truth of our experience—rather than getting caught up in judgments or telling ourselves we “should” feel differently. This is mindfulness: a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment.
So, when people offered me advice like, “stop trying to lose weight because dieting is bad,” or “you shouldn’t feel bad about eating food,” it didn’t do anything for me. Because, the reality is, we feel what we feel! And, those feelings aren’t going anywhere until we actually give our bodies permission to feel them fully.
If, right now, food causes you some anxiety, that is the true experience in this moment. If you notice yourself engaging in emotional eating habits, that is the true experience of that moment. We can’t intellectualize our way out of what’s true. Acknowledging this truth without judgment is what it means to meet ourselves where we’re at.
Shifting Food Anxiety with Food Mantras
When it comes to your own thoughts, feelings and anxieties about food, notice if you tend to tell yourself something “shouldn’t” be this way. “I shouldn’t eat so much.” “I shouldn’t finish the whole bag of Cheetos in one sitting.” “I shouldn’t be so nervous to keep cookies in the house.”
It should be this way—because it is this way! It is what it is. The best chance we have of moving through any feeling is to acknowledge the feeling, not resist it. Learning how to stop emotional eating or ease food anxiety doesn’t involve ignoring or denying our feelings. It may seem counterintuitive, but we have to welcome those feelings. This takes away some of their power!
Today, I’ve included a thought-shifting tool that’s rooted in a cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) approach. This “Food Mantras” download can help with overcoming emotional eating by shifting some of your negative thoughts around food and health, while acknowledging the truth of what’s happening now.
The key here is repetition and practice. The more we practice replacing unhelpful thoughts with more helpful thoughts, the more natural and automatic these new ways of thinking will become!
Benefits of Gratitude Practice
One of the best strategies on my journey of overcoming emotional eating and food anxiety has been acknowledging the little wins along the way. And for me, the cornerstone tool is my daily gratitude practice.
Plus, not only has practicing gratitude made me better at noticing good things in my life, but it’s also helped me make space for whatever I’m feeling in any given moment. I’ve become more open to all of my experiences, even uncomfortable feelings. And this is key in learning how to overcome emotional eating and comfort eating: accepting all of our emotions so we can better manage them. (Rather than turning to food.)
Interestingly, considerable research has shown that practicing gratitude daily leads to:
- reduced loneliness
- better sleep
- reduced physical pain
- fewer physical health problems
- greater sense of well-being
- better ability to handle change
- healthier behaviors
I’ve talked about gratitude quite a bit before, but if you’ve never tried it (or have been putting it off), there’s no better time than right now. What’s one thing, big or small, that you are grateful for in life? It could be person, animal, thing, quality about yourself—anything! Name it now to yourself, or, better yet, write it down.
Guided Meditation for Gratitude
To dive even deeper, try out another short guided meditation focused on cultivating gratitude in various categories of our lives. What a wonderful way to start out the day!
Explore this meditation and see how it can fit into your rotation, alongside the 5-minute guided meditation and the 15-minute meditation from last week. Whichever meditations you’re enjoying or whichever feel manageable right now, lean into those! And, of course, you can always switch things up and expand your practice along the way.
Part of developing a meditation practice, or a gratitude practice, or any practice really, is the practice. Keep at it, day after day, and don’t get discouraged if you miss or skip a day (or two, or five). You can always begin again!
Guided Mindfulness Meditation Apps
Today’s Journal Prompt:
Start your own daily gratitude and appreciation journal! First, write down 3 items you’re grateful for (i.e., things, people, beings, etc.).
Then, write down 3 things you appreciate about yourself (i.e., qualities, characteristics, actions you’ve taken, the way you handled a recent situation, etc.). Self-appreciation can be a challenge—especially at first—but it is essential to noticing the little wins and making progress on your transition to transformation!
Personal Growth & Food Anxiety Resources
- The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
- Facing Fear Foods (Video)
- Holiday Food Anxiety & Permission (Video)
Food Freedom & Whole30 Resources
- Food Freedom Forever by Melissa Hartwig Urban
- Melissa Urban’s Instagram
- The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide by Melissa Hartwig Urban & Dallas Hartwig
- Whole30 Day by Day by Melissa Hartwig Urban
- The Whole30 website