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The Facts About Emotional Eating

Want to have your cake and eat it, too? What you don’t know about emotional eating—why we’re wired to do it and why (sometimes) it’s not such a bad thing. 

By Alice Oglethorpe and Noelle Howey, additional reporting by Julia Edelstein
Model sitting behind a tiered cake looking sadGeof Kern

 

Food for Thought

Want to avoid excessive emotional eating? Try one of these exercises.

Record your emotions. “For a few days, before you eat, force yourself to write down what you’re feeling and thinking at that exact moment,” says exercise psychologist Heather Hausenblas. “Seeing your emotions on paper helps you understand what’s happening inside and recognize times when you’re more likely to eat out of something other than hunger.” It really works: A 2008 study from the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, found that people choose lower-calorie foods when they are aware of their feelings.

Show a little self-compassion. The next time you eat in response to a strong emotion, don’t lament your lack of willpower. Research shows that treating yourself gently may help you stave off future bouts of emotional eating. In 2007 researchers at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, asked female subjects to taste-test doughnuts. Half weren’t given any special instruction. The other half were given a lesson in self-compassion beforehand. The tester said, “I hope you won’t be too hard on yourself. Everyone in the study eats this stuff.” The result: Those who received the “Be kind to yourself” mandate ultimately ate fewer sweets.

Get an assistant. Or, at the very least, ask your spouse or kids to help around the house a bit more. According to a 2012 study from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, in Oulu, Finland, feeling burned-out can easily lead to emotional eating. Researchers found that women who were overwhelmed on the job were significantly more likely to use food as a source of comfort and relief than were those who were not. Antidote: Delegate some of your to-do list. Or, hey, ditch a few of the items on it altogether.

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