5 Ways to Shut Down Emotional Eating

une 13, 2013 | By Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD

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After a bad day, do you seek solace in ice cream, cheesecake, or whipped cream straight from the can? You may keep eating fatty foods when you’re feeling down because you’re less likely to taste the fat in food, according to new research from the University of Wurzburg in Germany.

In the study, scientists asked a group of volunteers to sample a variety of creamy drinks that contained different amounts of fat. Before tasting the treats, the study subjects were shown three different videos. The first depicted a happy scene, the second sad, and the third neutral. The humdrum video had no influence on the volunteers’ taste buds, but after watching the two emotional clips, the participants were less able to tell the drinks apart. The lesson: emotions impact our sensory perceptions of food. And eating anything–when what you really need has nothing to do with food–is a pattern that if broken, can dramatically transform your health, and your waistline. If you’re open to trying, here are five strategies to put into action.

Let it out
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A friend once told me that her therapist advised her to go to a garage sale or thrift store, buy some cheap dishes, take them into her back yard, and smash them to bits. When I asked if she did it, she said she had, just with one dish, and it was one of the most liberating moments of her life. Whether you’re walking around with anger, sadness, or anxiety bottled up inside, allowing it to fester ups the chances that you’ll use food to detach, or stuff it back down. For this reason, I often advise my clients to find healthy ways to release their feelings, like watching a tearjerker to have a good cry, or furiously scrubbing the tub to let out aggression. I’m not a huge fan of Freud, but I do love his quote, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth in uglier ways.” Truth.

Don’t multi-soothe
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If you find yourself drifting into the kitchen during a TV commercial to snatch that pint of Cherry Garcia you’ve been trying not to think about, stay put. Sit in a chair and eat the ice cream without distractions. It will probably feel incredibly awkward, but that’s the point. Inside your comfort cocoon, it’s easy to lose track of how fast and how much you’re eating, or that you’re even eating at all. Uncoupling these behaviors and just eating is like turning the lights on, which can lead to eating far less, or realizing that eating really isn’t the best way to cope. Powerful.

Distance yourself
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Over the years I’ve had numerous clients tell me that they can’t keep certain foods around, because if they’re there, they’ll eat them, especially when they’re emotional. But unless you live alone, it can be impossible to completely banish all “high risk” foods. One thing that may help, however, is making them harder to get to. Research shows (and my own experience confirms) that the fewer steps you have to go through to get to a food, the more likely you are to eat it, and vice versa. So, stashing candy or cookies on a higher shelf, wrapped in another bag or inside of a sealed container, really does diminish the chances of eating it. It also provides the opportunity to consider other options. One client told me that this trick resulted in a major breakthrough. She said, “I thought to myself well, I can either go in the closet, get the step stool, and pull down that old Halloween candy, or call my friend, and in that moment, picking up the phone just seemed easier.” For her, this felt like a huge triumph, especially the next morning, when she woke up without a food hangover–or regret.

Prevent the spiral
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One of the biggest challenges many of my clients face is not letting a small indulgence snowball into a big binge. Countless clients have told me, “After I went off track, I figured what the heck, I might as well keep eating.” This all or nothing tendency is especially common among people with a history of dieting, and ending it can be incredibly transformative, both emotionally and physically. If you’re perfectionistic, it can feel like there’s little difference between one “bad” meal and one “bad” day, but that’s not the truth. An analogy I use often is debt. If you were on a strict budget to get out of debt, and you spontaneously spent an extra $100, it wouldn’t make sense to then go on a spending spree and charge hundreds more to your credit card, right? If you did, you’d just dig a deeper hole that would take longer to get out of, and that’s exactly what happens with food. This very pattern is why many women remain roughly the same size for years, despite constantly being on diets. If that sounds familiar, know that you can break the cycle. Many of my clients discover that after a short detour, it is possible to get right back on the road, rather than getting lost.

Structure your time
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For most of my clients, the risk of eating emotionally is greater on the weekends, when they have hours of unstructured time. If you’re in the same boat, plan a project or activity you enjoy, and build in a deadline. For example, if you’re making something (jewelry, crafts, etc.), plan to give it to a friend or family member on a specific date. And once you’ve finished a project, start another. This lifestyle change can result in finally ending what some of my clients refer to as “two day food orgies” and add to your quality of life in numerous ways.

What’s your take on this topic? Do you struggle with emotional eating? Please tweet your thoughts to @CynthiaSass and @goodhealth

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches. Connect with Cynthia on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

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