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How to stop emotional eating: firstly, identify what causes you to reach for the biscuits

Mindless munching is a temporary fix that masks the real issue. Remember, if you are feeling tired or lonely, food won’t fix it

Feeling a bit meh? You might find yourself cruising the kitchen cupboards for the solution. A pint of ice cream, a tube of crisps, some cake? The trigger for this mindless munching isn’t hunger, it’s your emotions.

“We don’t always eat to satisfy physical hunger. Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better,” says Susi Lodola, a cognitive behavioural therapist accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy.

“It’s to fill emotional needs rather than your stomach.”

The link between food and feelings is no surprise – from childhood, we are offered milk to stop crying, sweets for a scraped knee and cake for celebrations.


Boredom, tiredness, anger, stress, loneliness and sadness can all trigger a desire to eat, says Lodola.

Temporary fix

Emotional eating is a temporary fix that masks the real issue.

“Food doesn’t fix any of these feelings,” says Lodola. It can comfort and distract you and even boost your energy for a short time, but it won’t solve the problem.

Food or drink won’t solve overwork, a lack of childcare or relationship strife.

If anything, emotional eating can make you feel worse.

“You can feel guilty, ashamed, frustrated and hopeless. You beat yourself up for not having any willpower,” says Lodola.

Identify your triggers

The first step to stopping emotional eating is to identify the emotion that’s triggering it. Reaching for a packet of biscuits can feel mindless and even automatic, but try to pause before you do it and check in with your body.

Do you have a headache, a racing heart or mind, is there a tightness in your tummy or shoulders – these sensations can help you pinpoint the underlying emotion.

“Once you have identified where that emotion is in your body, then sit with that emotion for five minutes,” says Lodola. “Learn to understand that emotions are not dangerous. Riding out the emotion may help you avoid reaching for that comfort food.”

Meet your needs

If you are feeling tired or lonely, food won’t fix it.

“Ask yourself, what do I actually need right now,” says Lodola. If you had a rough day and are tired, what you need is rest. Maybe you need to sit down for 15 minutes. If it’s sadness, maybe you just need to go and sit with that for a little bit and explore why it’s happening. It’s about learning that food is not the answer,” says Lodola.

Make a plan

When you are overwhelmed by the desire to inhale a litre of ice cream, it pays to have a plan.

Brainstorm alternative activities you could do when you are feeling tired or sad and rate them in order of your likelihood to do them, says Lodola. They might include listening to a podcast or going for a walk.

Every time you feel the emotion that usually makes you emotionally eat, do the new thing instead, says Lodola. She offers courses in dealing with emotional eating using cognitive behaviour therapy.

“You are trying to break something that has become habitual. You want to create a new neural pathway. Going for a walk is a completely new way of dealing with the emotion. The brain has to lay down this pathway and that takes time.”

Be mindful

Of course, not having quick-fix treats in the house in the first place means there are fewer opportunities for you to succumb to emotional eating. Get rid of the high-fat, high-sugar food that gives you instant energy, but makes you crash.

Eating more mindfully – that means eating more slowly, taking time to feel the texture and taste the flavours in your food – can also give you the time to process the emotion you are feeling.

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about homes and property, lifestyle, and personal finance