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If you raid the fridge when you’re stressed or upset, that’s called emotional eating. Emotional eating affects most everyone from time to time, but regularly letting your feelings guide your food intake can affect your health.
Sadness, boredom, and other negative emotions can drive emotional eating—such as polishing off a container of ice cream after a romantic breakup or devouring a bag of potato chips when you’re home alone on a Saturday night. But happy events can lead to it, too. Many people overeat at joyous occasions like parties and weddings.
More serious conditions can be linked to emotional eating. One is binge eating disorder, characterized by eating dramatically large amounts of food well after you reach the point of fullness.
Eating more food than your body needs can have dangerous consequences. People who eat for emotional reasons often gain too much weight, which puts them at greater risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and cancer. Excessive eating has emotional consequences as well, such as feeling guilty or embarrassed afterward.
Here are steps you can take to stop emotional eating episodes and break the cycle:
Learn to recognize hunger. Next time you reach for a snack, ask yourself what’s driving it. If you are truly hungry, you’ll notice physical symptoms, such as a growling stomach. Other, less obvious hunger cues include irritability and difficulty concentrating. If those signs are absent, you probably don’t need to eat right then.
Keep a journal. Take the time to create a “mood and food” journal. Write down what you eat each day, along with the emotions you were experiencing at the time and whether you were truly hungry. You may find that specific feelings, such anger or sadness, lead to your overeating. Once you recognize these triggers, you can learn healthier ways to deal with them. For example, if you experience stress, instead of trying to relieve it with a candy bar, take a walk around the block.
Build a support network. Surrounding yourself with friends and family who support your efforts to change your eating habits can improve your chances of success. It may also be helpful to join a support group, such as the 12-step program Overeaters Anonymous, through which you will meet other people with similar problems and learn better ways of coping.
Cultivate other interests. Finding an activity that you enjoy, such as yoga, playing a musical instrument, or painting, can increase self-confidence, which is often poor in emotional eaters. If you find that your eating is driven by boredom, a new passion can fill your hours and make you less likely to look to food for emotional satisfaction.
Get help if necessary. If you can’t control emotional eating on your own, consider getting professional help to change your behavior. A form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy can teach you to change your eating habits and deal with unpleasant emotions in a better way. Medication, including antidepressants and appetite suppressants, may also help. Talk with your health care provider to learn about more treatment options.