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David Baxter PhD

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How to Break the Cycle of Emotional Eating

by Robin L. Flanigan,
Feb 8, 2021


Evolutionarily speaking, we’re wired to store more body fat in the winter because that was—long ago, before Grubhub and Uber Eats—when food was scarce.

These days, the winter blues (even the winter blahs) have us snacking mindlessly from stress, anxiety, even boredom.

Research has shown that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of foods high in fat and sugar. Those foods diminish stress-related responses and emotions—the reason they’re called “comfort foods”—and, as a result, can lead to cravings.

But emotional eating brings temporary consolation.

“People who cope with their emotions through food will often berate themselves after the fact, feeling like they are failing at their goals,” says Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist. “This leads to more sadness and then back to eating to provide solace.”

Bite by bite, however, we can reset our habits by becoming more aware of what we put in our mouths.

Marcella Friel, who teaches mindful eating at retreat centers in Colorado, says the practice is not another way to diet. It’s about shifting to healthier food choices over time, taking smaller bites, and staying attentive to signs that your body has had enough.

Breaking the cycle of emotional eating does take commitment. And self-awareness.

As a rule of thumb, people need about three weeks to establish a new behavior pattern and about three months to make it a habit, according to Jodie Shield, a former Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics national-media spokesperson.

But it’s entirely possible—as long as you don’t bite off more than you can chew.

So, pause between bites. Put your fork down and remember that when you slow down and take time to savor the food, it helps with digestion and lets the flavors fade completely before your next bite, which helps in knowing when to stop.
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