More often than less, the strongest cravings for food happen when you’re at your weakest point emotionally. You may turn to food for comfort — consciously or unconsciously — when you’re facing a difficult problem, stress, or just looking to keep yourself occupied, especially during the holidays. Emotional eating can sabotage your weight-loss efforts and often leads to eating too much, especially too much of high-calorie, sweet, fatty foods that have minimal if any nutrient benefits.
Here are a few tips to help you become more mindful of emotional eating vs real hunger:
Tame your stress. If stress contributes to your emotional eating, try a stress management technique, such as yoga, meditation or stretching. For more on stress management, read my article 11 Ways to Manage Your Stress.
Have a hunger reality check. Is your hunger physical or emotional? If you ate just a few hours ago and don’t have a rumbling stomach, you’re probably not really hungry. Give the craving a little time to pass. Most of us have no idea what it feels like to be physiologically hungry. Drink some water, often when we think we are hungry we are actually dehydrated.
Start a food diary. Write down what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how you’re feeling when you eat, and how hungry you are. Over time, you may see patterns emerge that reveal the connection between mood and food.
Reach for support. You’re more likely to give in to emotional eating if you lack a good support network. One mistake that I often see happen when someone is trying to change their eating and exercise habits is that they expect their friends or family members to hold them accountable. I discourage people from doing this because it’s not healthy for the relationship if you expect your loved ones to hold you accountable and it often leads to conflict or resentment towards one of the parties. I encourage hiring a qualified and credentialed coach to help guide and support you through your behavior change journey. Check out my coaching programs if you feel you need support.
Resist boredom. Instead of snacking when you’re not truly hungry, distract yourself. Take a walk, watch a movie, listen to music, read, surf the Internet or call a friend.
Take away temptation. Don’t keep supplies of comfort foods in your home if they’re hard for you to resist. Make sure to postpone your trip to the grocery store if you are in an emotional state because that can increase your risk of losing control and making impulsive choices that you will later regret.
Don’t deprive yourself. When you’re trying to achieve a weight-loss goal, you may limit your calories too much, eating the same foods frequently and banishing the treats you enjoy. This may just serve to increase your food cravings, especially in response to emotions. So let yourself enjoy an occasional treat and get plenty of variety to help curb cravings. I’m a big promoter of the 80/20 rule. Set a goal to maintain healthy eating habits 80% of the time and allow yourself to indulge in cravings the additional 20%.
Snack healthy. If you feel the urge to eat between meals, choose a snack that contains lean protein, healthy fat, and focus on non-starchy carbohydrates. Make sure to have fresh produce prepped and ready for when cravings strike. Limit fruit because they are high in sugar and can cause an increase in blood sugar levels, that will contribute to continuous cravings throughout the day. Avoid turning to alcohol. When we are struggling with strong emotions, we often reach for a drink to help ease the pain. This can contribute to excess calories and decrease your ability to resist temptation. Check out my 16 Favorite Healthy Snacks for ideas!
Learn from your mistakes. If you have an episode of emotional eating, forgive yourself and start fresh the next day. Try to learn from the experience and make a plan for how you can prevent it in the future. Focus on the positive changes you’re making in your eating habits and give yourself credit for making changes that will lead to better health. When we self-sabotage due to poor food choices the damage is far greater to our overall weight-loss efforts than the additional calories, fat, and sugar we consumed in the moment.
I hope this information will help keep you and your weight-loss efforts on track during the holidays!