You stand at the freezer, steaming over something that happened at work and searching for a bowl of ice cream to cool your emotions. You sit on the couch and mindlessly munch through a whole bag of chips after a fight with a loved one.
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This is emotional eating. You’ve probably heard it called “stress eating,” but “emotional” is more accurate. Many negative emotions — including anger and sadness — can trigger bad eating habits.
Here’s the problem: The feel-good foods you reach for can make you feel worse. Fortunately, there are strategies to help make sure your emotions don’t turn into diet damage in the long term.
1. Address the root cause
A bad day at work or a fight with a friend are short-term issues. But emotional eating can come from chronic issues, too. These include chronic stress, long-term anger, depression and other concerns. If these apply to you, ask your doctor if you would benefit from counseling, medications, stress management, exercise and other techniques.
The strategies outlined here can help. But ultimately, you need to identify the source of your emotional eating — and address it.
2. Ask why you are eating
When you walk to the refrigerator, pantry or snack machine, ask a simple question: “Am I really hungry?”
It’s too easy to just dive into mindless eating. By asking yourself this question, you at least recognize your motivation. In the best cases, you may decide, “No, I’m not really hungry,” and walk away. At other times, being more aware may help you make better food choices.
3. Swap out your worst snacks
If you don’t have a giant bag of greasy chips at your fingertips, you can’t eat the whole bag. That’s good, because overeating processed snacks can raise your levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
If you need a salty snack, stock popcorn (with salt and oil only) instead. You’ll get the whole grains that are one important source of the feel-good hormone serotonin. You’ll also get antioxidants to boost your immune system and far fewer calories than chips.
If stress, anger or sadness trigger your sweet tooth, remember this: The sugar high comes with a low afterward. Sweets and processed foods can even make certain mental concerns, including symptoms of depression, worse.
As an alternative to your favorite candy, cake or pies, try keeping a bowl of sweet fruit out in the open, either at home or at work. You’re more likely to eat fruits and veggies when they are easy to access.
4. Choose foods that fight stress
Have you ever wondered why people offer hot tea in emotional situations? It turns out there’s more to it than soothing steam. Tea often contains helpful antioxidants. And green tea, matcha tea and white tea contain an amino acid called L-theanine that may help reduce stress levels.
If you tend to snack late at night, try dark cherries. Not only do they offer a sweet treat, they also help increase natural levels of melatonin to help you sleep. Likewise, salmon and other fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help not only with sleep but also with preventing depression.
The list goes on: Dark chocolate (at least 70 percent cacao), whole grains, nuts, legumes, and fruits and vegetables all have a part to play in maintaining a healthy mind. The key is stocking up on foods that help with your stress or emotions — and avoiding processed junk that might make you feel worse.
5. Make emergency packages
If you’re prone to stress-related snacking, prepare for it.
For example, don’t eat any food straight from the package. Grabbing snacks from the package is a recipe for binge eating and overindulgence.
Instead, pre-portion snacks such as nuts, popcorn or pre-sliced veggies into baggies or containers. Consider these your emergency snack packages — or just your healthy snack options on an ongoing basis.
Beyond these tips, it bears repeating: If you need medical help to address emotional issues, ask for it. A doctor can help you tackle stress, depression, anger or any other negative emotions with a full treatment plan.
By Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD