Behavioral Interventions to Conquer Emotional Overeating

As infants we instinctively knew when to stop eating. A physical sensation or trigger in our mind acknowledged that our physical needs had been met and that our body was no longer in need of nourishment. The body and mind were satisfied. Then as we aged and our responsibilities grew, we began to associate different emotions and situations with food. We used eating as an easy way to fill needs or solve problems not being dealt with in our lives.

As a child, you may have been anxious about a test and unknowingly finished off a large bag of potatoes chips or cookies in one study session. Or, maybe you were a lonely teen who felt like you never fit in among peers so you played video games, watched movies and ate unhealthy foods late into the evening. This is how your relationship with food developed.

You may have only recently started overeating, distracted by a busy lifestyle that includes carting the kids to and from school, working long hours and never finding enough time in the day to cook or exercise. Daily stress and anxiety have taken hold of you. You skip exercise, meditation and talk therapy; instead, you grab a quick bite to eat at the nearby fast food chain store.

Most people who overeat are unable to truly recognize stomach hunger and eat emotionally to rid themselves of unpleasant feelings and emotional triggers that entice them to overeat in the first place. Visual eaters are often not hungry until food is in their sight. Then there are those people who just eat out of plain boredom. Learning to identify and know your triggers for overeating can help you to acquire the skills to self-sooth without food. If you understand your eating profile, you can also discover ways to make healthy choices about when, where and what you eat. Maybe one of these eating profiles fits you?

The Snacker: You eat healthy meals, but snack on unhealthy foods between meals. The next day you may not even remember how those late night treats got into my hands.

The Belly Buster: You consistently eat portions that are way too large for any one person. Buffets and pasta nights are your best friend.

The Consumer: Dazzled by glorious food advertisements featuring shiny gooey desserts and new and improved flavor recipes, you make unhealthy choices at the grocery store or when dining out.

The Indulger: By the end of the week, you reward yourself for eating somewhat well by ordering a large pepperoni pizza with extra cheese squashing any chances of those healthy meals making an impact on your health.

So now that you may have an idea of the type of eater you may be, let’s review some simple behavioral interventions that could help you to avoid overeating:

  1. Self-monitor. Write down what, when and where you eat. It’s proven that self-monitoring is a key behavior for successful results. It helps to identify triggering emotions and situations that entice us to eat. If you know that you’ll grab one or two of those glistening donuts beckoning you from beyond the Dunkin Donuts counter, opt for the drive thru service when you purchase your morning coffee.
  2. Slow down. People often tell us to eat slowly to feel satiated sooner, but this is easier said than done. One trick is to put down your utensil or sandwich between each bite, and if eating out with others don’t feel the need to keep up with the fast eaters at the table. Slow and steady wins the race, and at dinner you’ll be winning the battle of the bulge.
  3. Make a plan. If you’re on the run, plan ahead by packing healthy food choices like nuts, apples and protein bars. When eating alone, set a nice table because just as you should enjoy your food, you should also enjoy the experience of eating. The action of setting a table and preparing for the presentation of your meal will encourage you to take the time to eat, instead of mindlessly munching at the open refrigerator door. 
  4. Time it. When people overeat emotionally they often don’t feel like they have control over food. When temptation strikes and you want to eat something right away, set a timer for ten minutes. When the timer goes off, if you still want the food then eat it. More often than not, you’ll change your mind.
  5. Label it. Visual eaters will appreciate this tip. Store and label food in opaque containers. Out of sight; out of mind. You’re less likely to finish off that box your child’s favorite cookies if it’s not in plain sight.

These are only a few of the tips that can help you when temptation strikes. Write them down as simple reminders and, if needed, talk to a friend or psychologist. He or she can help you to better understand your emotional eating and serve as a support system. You are not alone in your struggle with food. Obesity has skyrocketed in the United States, and it’s important we help each other to live fulfilled healthy lives.