Plus, how to stop yourself before it's too late.
If You're Eating, but Not Hungry
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Carol Cottrill, a certified nutritional consultant, says emotional eating is when one eats for reasons other than actual hunger.
"Emotions dictate eating instead of the internal cues designed to guide us to eating when we're hungry and stopping when we're full," Cottrill says.
And this is so scary because mindless and emotional eating can result in excess weight and a host of health-related issues such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and high cholesterol. Beyond the physical health risks, overweight individuals can also suffer from depression and isolation, only perpetuating the cycle of emotional eating.
If You're Eating Out of Boredom
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Nicole Palacios, personal trainer and fitness pro in Vancouver, Canada, warns that if you're eating because you're bored or plan food around TV shows or other activities (and not for nutritional purposes), you're likely emotional eating. Certain foods and meals make you feel happy if you've had a hard day or feel restless, but you should really only eat if you're hungry—not to make yourself feel better.
Palacios cautions that emotional eating can cause you to consume extra calories mindlessly from fat and sugar—these are the foods that make you feel good. Also, if you don't pay attention to the volume of what you eat, it can cause you to eat way more calories than you should. Hello, weight gain!
If You're Feeling Anxious or Stressed
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Anxiety and stress tend to translate into emotional eating, says Amie Valpone, culinary nutritionist and personal chef. Work, family, and money stress, along with lack of sleep don't help the situation either, she adds.
"It can be a dangerous combination for those who have problems controlling what they eat because feelings and food are intimately related," she says. "The key to controlling your emotional eating is to figure out what sparks you to dive into the chocolate chip cookies and potato chips, mindlessly munching without even realizing you're eating until the bag is then empty."
By pinpointing the sources of your anxiety, you can better control your tendency to mindlessly overeat.
So Are You Hungry?
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Cottrill points out that you can tell you're eating emotionally if your hunger comes on suddenly. Physical hunger occurs gradually. "Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly with the food you crave; physical hunger can wait until you know exactly what you have a taste for," she says.
Fight Emotional Eating
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You can stop emotional eating by stripping away outside influences, Cottrill says. So you know those fad diets you keep trying or meaning to try—don't even start those. They only leave you feeling deprived and longing to satisfy your cravings. Instead, get back in touch with your own desires, preferences, palate, heritage, genetics, traditions, lifestyle, and uniqueness, Cottrill says.
Positive Self-Image Goes a Long Way
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Cottrill also advises that you love yourself. "A truly successful approach [to stop emotional eating] is one that deals with an individual's self-image, as well as the underlying emotional needs that cause overeating," she says. "Begin by rediscovering your inner beauty with which you were created, and you will make a major stride toward successful weight loss and other avenues of self-improvement. Ultimately, emotional eating can only be overcome when we heal by getting to know and love the self we are already in."
Other Practices That May Help
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Palacios suggests that you keep a food journal and document everything you eat. "Having to write it down makes you more aware of the foods you are eating," she says.
She also advises not to buy empty-calorie foods. Simply not having them in your house can do wonders.
"Mindless eating carrots or celery is probably not going to happen, but if it did, you would be home free," she says.
Emotional Eating Workarounds
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Valpone also recommends that you exercise to get those endorphins flowing, which will also curb your hunger and take your mind off of munching. Having a plan can also help.
"Before going to a party or family event, decide what and how much you are going to eat," she says. "Consciously choose one food you want to indulge in so you won't feel deprived in the long run."
And, use small plates! "The larger the plate, the larger the portions."