Healthy Living Blog

Tools for Reducing Emotional Eating

Joe, the carpenter, is working on a house renovation project. The day’s tasks will involve sawing wood, drilling holes, and sanding finishes. When he opens his toolbox, he discovers all he has is a hammer. If he tried to do the tasks with just the hammer, the job would become a disaster.

Now imagine Carol, an overweight, emotional eater and sometimes binger. When her mood is down, she eats to cheer up, happiness results in celebratory eating, when tried she eats for energy, and agitation triggers eating to calm down. It’s as if all she brings to the job of living is a hammer and the results will be ineffective, leading to weight gain, self-loathing, and more eating.

The healthy self provides numerous capacities to handle life in positive ways. When facing stress or problems, we draw on them to help get ourselves through. At our best, the coping methods we use are functional, effective in lifting us over the difficult moment with no self-harm. At our worst, we act impulsively, doing something quick and easy that is self-destructive, leading to greater distress. Bingeing and other forms of emotional eating are examples of dysfunctional coping.

In a sense, we carry within us a hidden tool kit of coping mechanisms. A kit with just one tool, whether it is a hammer or food, will not afford the range of flexible options we need to handle the complex problems of living. The more complete the tool kit, the better our chances of staying functional. What are some of the tools needed to reduce emotional eating and bingeing? I will answer that at first in broad terms and then provide an example of one client’s tool kit designed to reduce emotional eating.

Types of Tools

A good binge busting tool kit will include as many of these as possible:

Safety Valves

When tension or pressure builds up, there is a strong desire to use food to create an escape, to comfort, or to soothe. There are numerous more effective decompression strategies available, such as deep breathing, visualization, meditation, stretching, or muscle tension and release. For example, tighten each fist as though you are trying to squeeze all the juice out of a lemon. Hold the tension for a few seconds, then close your eyes and slowly open each fist, telling yourself you are letting go of the tension. Imagine the tingling or limpness you feel can then spread through your body with each inhale.

Safety Zones

A meal plan is a safety zone; it’s easier to manage food when there is a plan than when your eating is based on how you feel at the moment. A schedule or routine of meaningful activity, such as a hobby or volunteering, will protect healthy eating by making you less inclined to use food as a dysfunctional form of reward or self-nurturing. Safety zones include exercise and sleep routines, and time to think and reflect.

Mood Shifters

At the end of a difficult distressing day, it can help to do something that might flip your mood to the opposite – watch a funny movie, read a humorous book, listen to uplifting music. I’m not suggesting that the goal is to make all of life a situational comedy, but the ability to use these methods to shift moods for a brief period may lessen the need to use food to do it.

Trigger Awareness

At first, Annie thought her desire to binge just came out of nowhere. She kept TO her food plan all day but when alone at night, she was consumed with thoughts of food. While journaling, she realized she was still upset over a phone call with her parents and their critical reaction to her decision to see a therapist. This insight helped her see that she was still hurt and angry, that bingeing would only hurt her more, and that she needed to speak up with her parents in the next phone call. Journals and food diaries promote self-awareness and help convert urges into more effective coping strategies.


At the core of the 12-step recovery philosophy (OA, AA) is the idea of trading community support for substance use. Often OA members are encouraged to call in their food plan to a sponsor. Leaning on others is far more functional than using food in shame-based isolation. Robin and Kelly (see below) formed a bond that was far greater than the sum of its parts and furthered the strength of their recovery. Support from friends, family, trainers, therapists, nutritionists, and life coaches can make the difference between an urge that passes or one you can’t resist.

Physical Activity

The many benefits of exercise include the following:

  1. Exercise can discharge the energy that builds up from stress.
  2. It can be a distraction that allows time to pass, emotions to dissipate, or urges to ease.
  3. It’s a positive activity that builds self-esteem, creates a sense of control, and can keep a lapse from becoming a relapse. Imagine taking a 15-minute walk before acting out an urge. It might be a mood shifter and an urge buster.


Finding the hidden challenge in a stress is an example of re-framing, which reduces negative emotions and the need to use food to escape from them. Remember Annie? She was able to convert a stressful conversation with her parents into an opportunity to be more assertive. Optimists do this all the time, viewing problems as temporary, not permanent, and mistakes as the result of the wrong strategy, rather than moralizing they are week or have failed.


The healthy self has the ability to offer reassurance in the face of mistakes or not having the right tool in the moment. I recommend this formula: admit to an error without self-deprecation and balance it with an affirmation. After an emotional eating relapse, instead of self-hatred, it would be far more healing to think, I used food to deal with the anxiety I felt. But it was the first slip in two weeks, and overall I’m making progress with managing my emotions.

Damage control

There are better and worse ways to do anything, including emotional eating. If, after trying some of these tools, you feel bound to eat, try eating a small “dose” amount of a food that is not highly triggering. Eat it slowly, at a table, and tune in to it with no distractions. Afterward, return to some of the tools mentioned above. You might find that it was good enough to get you over the hump, and what was a gallon of ice cream or large bag chips last time was a more reasonable amount this time – a sign of progress.

feel like I can conquer anything now

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