How to stop using food to make yourself feel better

July 18, 2016 | by Jacqueline Ross, M.D.

Food is almost like a drug. Depending on how you use it, it can be incredibly addictive.

Take sugar, for example.

We all have our go-to comfort food. What’s yours? Pasta? Pizza? A big bowl of ice cream?

What if you didn’t need that favorite food to comfort yourself?

Emotional eating is something nearly everyone does, to some degree. If food is becoming a constant companion, however, it’s probably time to get to the root of the problem.

Here are tips to help fight the urges that lead to emotional eating:

  • Be mindful. Eating without thinking about what or how much you’re eating almost always leads to overdoing it. Eating slowly, without distractions, paying attention to each bite and your level of fullness will help keep your portions healthy.
  • Find something else to look forward to. After a hard day, reach for your bike or a good book instead of a huge bowl of mac ‘n cheese. Replace the food reward with a physical or mental reward (a nice walk along a scenic path, perhaps). Got a promotion? Celebrate by treating yourself to new clothes or a new pair of shoes instead of an ice cream sundae.
  • Figure out what’s driving you—and feel it. What emotion makes you turn to food? Sadness? Anger? Frustration? Instead of quelling the feeling with food, sit down and experience the feeling. Let yourself be sad, angry or frustrated. When you get used to the feeling, it won’t be as hard to tolerate (and you won’t feel like raiding the pantry to make it go away).
  • Go to bed at a normal hour. Staying up late is almost guaranteed to make your tummy rumble. And being tired makes it a lot harder to resist food cravings.

Mayo Clinic offers some great ways to help you handle food cravings, including:

  • Keep 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 might see patterns that reveal the connection between mood and food.
  • Manage stress. If stress contributes to your emotional eating, try a stress management technique, such as yoga, meditation or deep breathing.
  • Seek support. You're more likely to give in to emotional eating if you lack a good support network. Lean on family and friends or consider joining a support group.
  • Get busy! Instead of snacking when you're not hungry, distract yourself and substitute a healthier behavior. Take a walk, watch a movie, play with your cat, listen to music, read, surf the Internet or call a friend.
  • Take away temptation. Get hard-to-resist comfort foods out of your home. And if you feel angry or blue, postpone your trip to the grocery store until you have your emotions in check.
  • Snack healthy. If you feel the urge to eat between meals, choose a low-fat, low-calorie snack, such as fresh fruit, vegetables with low-fat dip or almonds. Or try low-fat, lower calorie versions of your favorite foods to see if they satisfy your craving.
  • Learn from setbacks. If you have an episode of emotional eating, forgive yourself and start fresh the next day. Don’t beat yourself up! 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'll lead to better health.

Develop a healthy relationship with food. Use it for fuel, not emotional support.

Need help losing weight? Learn more about our Weight Loss Clinic.

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