Here’s why you’re an emotional eater, and how to stop doing it.

By Shoshana Pritzker, RD, CDN

The way you handle stress didn’t just start one day; it was learned over time, stemming from childhood. And if you’re an emotional eater, your tendency to turn to food came from your caregivers and those around you.

Celebrating straight As with a trip to the ice cream shop or being offered chocolate when you’re sad are both examples of learning to use food to cope with emotions. On the other hand, food may be an integral part of your family’s traditions and gatherings. This is also part of developing an emotional relationship with food.

While stress eating is not a bad thing – it’s a valid way to cope – it can get in the way of reaching your health and fitness goals. Diving into a sleeve of cookies after a long day can wreak havoc on weight loss goals. And when a cheat meal turns into a binge weekend, it’s time to improve your stress management skills.

How to Stop Stress Eating

So what to do if you’re a stress eater? First, take a few moments to write down some other ways you can relieve stress and anxiety that’s not related to food — in other words, find other ways to cope. That way, when the time comes you have a list of things you can try to help you feel better. Here are a handful of ways to relieve stress that are not food or eating:

  • Deep breathing or meditation
  • Take a walk
  • Read a book
  • Listen to your favorite music
  • Wash your face or take a hot bath/shower
  • Exercise
  • Talk to a friend
  • Hug someone

Check Your Hunger

If you know you’ve recently had a meal or snack but are wanting something else to eat, check in with yourself and determine whether you’re hungry or wanting to eat for other reasons.

You can check your hunger by utilizing the hunger scale. On a scale of 1-10, how hungry are you? If your number is closer to a 10 (being most hungry), go ahead and eat something; if your number is closer to 1 (being not hungry at all), take a 10–20-minute break and find something else to do to occupy your time. If when that break is over, you’re still thinking about food, go ahead and eat.

If you really are hungry, that’s a sign that your meals and snacks may not be balanced, thus leaving you unsatisfied.

To make your meals and snacks balanced and satisfying, focus on including a quality protein source in the right portion size. The portion size of protein foods is based on your own calorie needs.

A good place to start is to make at least 20%-35% of your daily calories protein. Split that number up between meals and snacks to give you a filling portion of protein.

Here’s a list of high-protein foods to include in your daily menu:

  • Poultry
  • Whole eggs and egg whites
  • Protein powder
  • Meat 
  • Tofu and tempeh
  • Dairy foods
  • Fish and shellfish

Change Your Mindset

If your anxiety and emotions are leading you to eat when your goals are the opposite, finding ways to combat this is important.

Research suggests that a stress-challenge mindset versus a threatening mindset result in a more positive outcome and ability to cope and move forward from the stressor. That means the way you perceive the situation has a direct impact on your emotional well-being.

To shift your mindset from negative to positive, start by realizing your reaction is how you view the stressor, not the stressor itself. You can change how you view stress. Have confidence — you can (and will) recover from this and feel better again.

Get Support

Poor mental health makes the way you manage stress and emotions worse. Talking to a licensed healthcare professional can help you work through your thoughts and learn new coping strategies that work for you and your lifestyle. Understanding why you turn to food is the key to self-awareness and the first step towards change.

If emotional eating is taking a toll on your mental health and physical goals, it may be time to learn new coping skills and strategies to help you feel better. Remember that you’re in control of how you respond to stress and emotions. Be gentle on yourself. Making changes takes time, but it’s worth the effort.

Shoshana Pritzker, RD, CDN, is a registered dietician, sports nutritionist, and author of the book 




Crum AJ, Akinola M, Martin A, Fath S. The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Anxiety Stress Coping. 2017 Jul;30(4):379-395. doi:10.1080/10615806.2016.1275585

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