Whether it’s joy over an accomplishment or stress after work, it’s normal to want to reach for snacks or unhealthy foods when you’re feeling strong emotions. These bad habits rarely have anything to do with your actual physical hunger but have everything to do with what’s going on in your life.
Instead of stress eating, rewarding yourself for hard work, or trying to wash away a bad day, you want to eat because you’re hungry. Mindful eating combined with an emotional toolbox filled with healthy emotional outlets can be a great way to reduce these unhealthy stress eating habits.
Let’s dive into some healthy emotional outlet options (and why you need them!):
What is Emotional or Stress Eating?
Emotional or stress eating is eating when you’re feeling stressed or experiencing a large emotion. This is often caused by negative feelings, such as stress, anger, fear, or anxiety. But it can also happen with positive emotions, such as when you’re happy or celebrating a big accomplishment. (1)
When you eat to satisfy an emotion instead of your stomach, you end up eating more calories than are recommended for daily intake. You also might be more tempted to reach for comfort or junk foods, which can result in unhealthy eating behaviors. (2)
Noticing You Need an Emotional Outlet
One of the first steps in reducing your emotional or stress eating is paying attention to when you eat and why. The next time you find yourself wandering your kitchen or pantry looking for something to eat, take a moment to stop and think about why you’re there. Are you eating because you’re hungry or are you reacting to a strong emotion? If your stomach isn’t growling, reaching for food could be your way of coping. (3)
And those strong feelings are very real, you can’t just ignore them! That’s why everyone needs a toolbox of healthy emotional outlets to help—because food doesn’t solve the feeling you’re experiencing. (Although it might feel good in the moment!)
But sometimes it’s difficult to know the difference. Here are a few ways to help you differentiate between eating when you’re hungry vs. eating when you’re feeling big emotions:
Take Note of Your Hunger Signals
A really important step in differentiating between hunger eating and stress or emotional eating is to take note of how your body signals hunger. You’re likely familiar with the feeling of a rumbling, growling, hungry tummy. But, your body may have other hunger signals, such as:
- Low energy
- Feeling cranky or grumpy
Start to pay close attention to your hunger cues over the next few days. You might start noticing differences between when you’re eating for hunger and eating for your emotions.
Start a Food Diary
A food diary is a great way to track what you’re eating and to identify in retrospect why you ate. Often, your reason for eating is much clearer when you look back at your eating instead of trying to figure it out in the moment. (4)
Keeping a food diary or food log can help you go back over your day and review what you ate with clarity. Your food log could also help identify common themes. (1,4) After a few weeks, you may notice that you always want comfort food right after work. If that’s the case, try an after-work decompression routine instead to help cope with those emotions in a healthier way.
Attempt to Name Your Emotions When You’re Eating
If you do catch yourself snacking during the day or reaching for the chocolates or salty snacks, take a moment to stop, take a deep breath, and see if you notice any big emotions. Naming what you’re feeling can be a great exercise to help you identify emotional eating. (4)
It’s also a great first step in dealing with those emotions in a healthy way. But give yourself some time to process what you’re experiencing. It can be a challenge to identify and name your emotions, especially if you’ve been ignoring them or covering them up for a long time.
Start to Recognize Your Triggers
As you spend more time naming and noticing your emotions, you might start to identify emotional eating triggers. These are events or situations that set off a pattern of unhealthy eating behavior. (1,4)
For example, you might notice that your Monday morning meeting always ends with you dashing to the pantry looking for a sweet treat. That’s an emotional trigger. Recognizing these triggers can help you get ahead of your emotional eating by replacing the behavior with a healthy emotional outlet instead.
10 Healthy Outlets for Negative Emotions
Awareness of emotional eating is just the beginning. Once you start to notice your emotional eating patterns, you can start to replace them with healthier outlets.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
One of the best tools to deal with stress and big emotions is to move. And, it doesn’t really matter what you do. Go out for a walk, dance around to music you love, do some yoga, or walk up and down the stairs. (3)
Movement, especially if it gets your heart rate up, is the perfect way to boost your mood, suppress your appetite, and get rid of stress.
2. Do Something Relaxing
If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, doing something relaxing can be a great way to deal with those emotions. You might take some time to stretch, meditate, practice yoga, or do some deep breathing. These can all help with big emotions and help you to reduce snacking.
3. Go Outside
Getting outside and being in nature can be a great way to deal with big emotions. Getting your bare feet in the grass can be a grounding experience. And nature has a way of boosting your mood as you soak in the sunshine (and vitamin D!).
4. Fix Yourself a Warm Beverage or Mocktail
Taking the time to fix yourself a warm beverage, mocktail, or healthy shake when you’re feeling big emotions can have a two-fold effect. Slowing down long enough to make your drink can be a great way to think through and process your emotions. And enjoying a hydrating drink can also help satisfy a thirst that’s disguised as hunger. (5)
5. Accomplish a Small Task
Big emotions often come from feelings of stress, anxiety, or frustration. Taking a moment to complete a small, satisfying task can help you to feel like you’ve accomplished something. Even if it’s small, the moment of success can help you feel better (and avoid the need for comfort-giving snacks). Give yourself a mini win and wipe away those negative emotions.
6. Reach for a Healthy Swap
Sometimes, the only thing that will do is a snack. If you’re craving something crunchy, salty, or sweet, reach for a healthy swap instead. Get to know your common cravings and find a healthier option that you can keep on hand for answering those cravings.
- Instead of a sweet snack, reach for an apple or a piece of dark chocolate
- Instead of potato chips, reach for roasted chickpeas or carrot and celery sticks
- Instead of a bowl of ice cream, blend up a smoothie using one of our top-rated, healthy diet shakes
- Instead of a pastry, reach for whole-grain toast with avocado
7. Do Something That Makes You Laugh
Another great way to dispel negative emotions is through laughter. If you’re feeling the need to reach for snacks to satisfy an emotional craving, instead go to your laugh folder. You can build a laugh folder by storing away YouTube channels, cartoons, images, and videos that always make you laugh. Taking a short break to laugh will help you to shift your perspective and relieve some stress.
8. Look for Ways to Make Long Term Changes
As you become more aware of your emotional triggers, you’ll start to notice patterns in your behavior. And over time, you might even realize that you have control over those patterns. Take back the power by identifying your emotional triggers, cutting out unhealthy (and unhelpful) behaviors, and learning how to manage your emotions in the long term. (1,4)
9. Allow Yourself to Feel Your Feelings
It might sound obvious, but a great way to deal with negative emotions is to let yourself feel them. When you immediately reach for snacks or other emotional outlets, it’s possible that you’re suppressing emotions.
You don’t have to wallow in emotions to feel them, but it’s also not healthy to continuously repress those emotions. It’s okay to feel negative emotions, they’re a normal and natural part of being human. To feel your emotions, you might take a quiet moment to notice how it makes you feel and where you feel the emotion in your body.
10. Keep and Review a Ta-Da List
A wonderful way to release negative emotions is through a positive or neutral reframe. You can reframe what’s going on and what you’re feeling through a ta-da list or a gratitude journal. (6)
A ta-da list is a list of your accomplishments. Each time you accomplish something, you can add it to your ta-da list. Then, if you’re feeling low or stressed, you can pull out that list and see all the amazing and wonderful things you’ve been able to do in the past. This can help you reframe what’s going on in your life and move through those negative emotions without reaching for a snack.
Negative emotions are a normal, natural part of everyday life. What’s important is how you react to these negative emotions. A really common reaction is to reach for unhealthy, comforting snack foods. Luckily, there are many other healthier emotional outlets that you can learn to use to limit your emotional eating and still process your emotions.