Emotional Eating: Ways to Soothe Without Food

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This post is part of our Healthy & Whole series to inspire a lifelong passion for home cooking and a sustainably healthy lifestyle. See the entire series here.

On days like today, I could eat everything that isn’t nailed down. I find myself sneaking into the kitchen…I rummage through the refrigerator for something to eat. I justify my nibbling by telling myself that after such a hard day, I deserve something satisfying. Munching makes me feel good…And after all the leftovers are gone, I still feel like I need something else. So I open up a box of cookies. I can’t stop eating them until I am way passed stuffed. Why does eating feel so good in the moment, and then I feel so much worse than when I started?
–Rachel, from “50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food” by Susan Albers, Psy.D

If you find yourself identifying to the words above, you’re not alone – and you’re not crazy. Food has the power to reduce stress, bring comfort, and alleviate boredom. But it’s easy to start to rely a little too much on food as a coping mechanism. After last week’s post on the inner critic, I felt it was time to bring back the topic of emotional eating to our Healthy + Whole series: eating food in response to a feeling instead of eating to relieve hunger. For example, feeling overwhelmed, guilty, joyful, stressed, shameful, or bored can drive us to eat.

I will be the first to admit this is a struggle for me. After a long day, there’s something therapeutic to me about mindlessly downing a comfort food, combined with multitasking on my phone or computer. Or, after I’m in a stressful situation like a disagreement or confrontation, I might head to the cupboard for some dark chocolate or salty popcorn.

Running to food for comfort is a what’s called self-soothing technique, a method people use to cope in response to a stressor. Self-soothing techniques relax your body and calm your nerves, as a way of coping with the responsibility and stress of daily life. Downing chocolate chip cookies or a margarita after a hard day is perfectly reasonable occasionally, but ingraining those patterns is when it starts to become a problem.

For example, you might be using food to self-soothe if you find yourself repeatedly:

  • Eating when you aren’t hungry, but can’t stop yourself
  • Feeling guilty about eating when you do it for soothing rather than to stop hunger
  • Snacking in a repetitive or trancelike state
  • Searching for something to eat, but not finding something satisfying
  • Continuing to eat because you can’t determine or find what you want to eat
  • Eating as a way to relax, after a stressful event or when you are nervous
  • Eating foods you don’t even like because they are there and you need comfort
  • Snacking to avoid boredom

If you feel like your relationship with food is more about self-soothing than you’d like it to be, I’d like to offer an encouragement: you are not alone! People struggle with emotional eating every day. And by removing the stigma from our eating choices, we can learn to live into freedom instead of out of guilt! There are all sorts of physical and social reasons why we turn to food when we’re stressed or worried (which I won’t go into here). In fact, there are entire books written on how we can start using healthy coping mechanisms in response to life’s stressors. Meaning: you are not weird. I don’t know if that makes you feel better, but just knowing others have similar struggles makes me feel some validation.

My main source for this topic is a book called 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, written by a psychologist named Susan Albers. (Susan, if you ever read this, I am a huge fan.) She speaks with an incredibly compassionate and encouraging voice about ways we can cope with stressors in a healthy way instead of turning to food. I would highly recommend her book if this is a topic that resonates with you.

If you want to eat more intentionally, there’s good news: you can remove the desire to be perfect in your eating choices. Instead, focus on taking baby steps towards a new way of eating. Here are a few ways Susan suggests to soothe yourself instead of turning to food. Like anything, these are easier said than done. If I have a craving for a comfort food, the last thing I want to do is take a walk. However, striving towards some of these practices can be helpful; even just knowing there is an alternative to soothing with food is beneficial.

  1. Practice mindfulness by taking a mindful walk: be fully present and notice everything around you, including the scenery, each of your senses, etc.
  2. Start a journal to keep track of your feelings and help you analyze your situation in a more positive, realistic way.
  3. Practice mindful spiritual moments: find a short prayer, Bible verse or saying and repeat it several times until your urge to eat lessens.
  4. Sweat it out: either at the gym, or use your normal daily activities as a way to get endorphins going, like daily chores, running after kids, even an impromptu dance party.
  5. Try chewing on something that’s not food related, like a breath mint or stick of gum, or cope with an oral fixation by drinking plenty of liquids.
  6. Distract your brain with an activity like reading a book, listening to a podcast, or watching a movie.
  7. Share your struggles with a confidant who can be your cheerleader.
  8. Find a way to give something of yourself to others; start small with boosting someone’s self-esteem a compliment, or volunteer your time to help a friend or neighbor.

I’ve used many of these techniques with some degree of success. Another great examination of this issue is this past Healthy + Whole post written by our friend Kathryne Taylor of Cookie and Kate. She shares some raw stuff and is super inspiring.

How about you – do you have any tips for soothing without food? We’d love to hear from you.

Note: Binge eating is frequent and repeated overeating to alleviate stress or negative feelings. If you think you have symptoms of binge eating or another eating disorder, you may want to seek out professional support.

25 Comments

  • Reply
    Erica
    October 9, 2015 at 9:25 am

    Sonja, this is a beautiful post. Well written and I like your approach to the topic, it’s honest and kind. Your healthy and whole posts are some of my favorites, just thought I would let you know! :)

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 12, 2015 at 4:10 pm

      Thank you so much, Erica! That means the world to me, so thank you for saying so! xo

  • Reply
    Katie @ Whole Nourishment
    October 9, 2015 at 10:31 am

    Oh I love Susan Albers work! And your article is really thorough Sonja. Soaking in an epsom salt bath in the evenings is one of my go-to strategies.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 12, 2015 at 4:31 pm

      Oh, I’m glad you know Susan’s stuff – she is awesome. Would love to talk more about this sometime :)

  • Reply
    Jessica
    October 9, 2015 at 10:52 am

    Hey guys! Thanks for sharing this post. I have come to the realization lately that this is me. A soother. I have never considered myself a “stress-eater” but I think it comes in many different forms and degrees. I struggle with this at work more than anywhere else. I have been attempting to change this with a hard stop, or cold-turkey. But it also takes a lot of forgiveness for myself as well. I lost 40 pounds over the past three years and I don’t want to go back due to things like this. Thanks again for writing this post, it’s a good read and very useful. I will check out the book.
    ~Jess

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 12, 2015 at 4:48 pm

      Jess, thank you for sharing this. First of all, congratulations on your weight loss! I had a similar realization to you a while ago; I think it is easy to eat to soothe and not even realize it’s happening! Half the time I’m not even in tune with the fact that I’m stressed or uncomfortable — and reading books like these made me much more aware of what is going on. I agree that sometimes cold turkey is the best method, since it usually is for me — I debated on whether to talk about that above too. However, it’s sometimes hard in the long run to maintain the cold turkey approach; hence the forgiveness you talk about here. Thanks for sharing, and I’m rooting for you! Let me know if you check out the book.

  • Reply
    Puja
    October 9, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    Very informative post, thanks a lot for sharing.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 12, 2015 at 4:48 pm

      You are very welcome! Thanks for reading.

  • Reply
    Kathryn @ The Scratch Artist
    October 9, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    Thanks for another Healthy + Whole installment. I love reading these and they are always so relevant for me. In the past, if I was upset, the answer was always food (ice cream, cookies, bread…you name it, I had it!). About five years ago I lost 40lbs and things have been very different since then (thank goodness!). I found it useful to figure out why I needed to be soothed. As in, what is going on with me that I am so distressed? Addressing my anxiety, distress, upset, etc… head on made all the difference. I stopped looking to be soothed by external activity and instead dealt with what was going on internally. Of course this is still a work in progress and I imagine it will always be. This is the stuff of life.

    Creating distractions and finding alternate soothing mechanisms never worked for me. Because while I could distract myself from the craving or desire to eat…the root cause of the distress always remained and eventually I was overcome and then there was no distraction big enough…

    Thanks again for another thoughtful post! xoxo!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 12, 2015 at 5:01 pm

      You are so welcome, Kathryn – and thank YOU for commenting! I’m so glad these posts are relevant! I agree, addressing the root of the issue is HUGE; to me, soothing mechanisms focused on that (mindfulness, prayer, journaling) seem to be the most powerful. I have definitely been in the “no distraction big enough” situation :)

  • Reply
    Brenda Nicholson
    October 9, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    I am reading this as I scarf down a bowl of mac & cheese – my go to comfort food. I lost my dad six weeks ago and have gained 13 lbs since then. I needed to read this. Thank you form the bottom of my heart.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 12, 2015 at 5:07 pm

      Brenda, I am terribly sorry to hear about your father. Please accept our deepest sympathies! It’s so easy to turn to comfort food more for support instead of nourishment in times like these (I know I would be). Sending thoughts and prayers to you in this time!

  • Reply
    Elise Gahan
    October 9, 2015 at 5:40 pm

    I love this so much. I am definitely going to check out that book because so many of those self-soothing signs describe me and my relationship with food. It is so great to see real people talk about these things, too.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 12, 2015 at 5:11 pm

      And thank YOU for commenting! This book is great: not just for the techniques, but for learning more about soothing & eating in general. Let me know if you check it out!

  • Reply
    Becca | Spices and Spatulas
    October 10, 2015 at 8:39 am

    This was exactly what I needed to read this morning. Particularly this sentence: “And by removing the stigma from our eating choices, we can learn to live into freedom instead of out of guilt!” Very well said, there and in the whole post. Thoughtful and objective, but still so personal. Thank you for this post! xo

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 12, 2015 at 5:34 pm

      Hooray for freedom! So glad to hear that this was helpful – and thank you so much for the nice feedback, Becca! It’s hard putting things out there so I really appreciate you saying so.

  • Reply
    Rebeca
    October 10, 2015 at 10:36 am

    Fantastic post, and a topic many of us can relate to, I’m sure.

    What emotional eating meant to me was turning to cookies and muffins when I’d had an overwhelming day. I didn’t necessarily eat huge amounts and the results couldn’t really be seen on the outside, but I felt such shame about that it didn’t make things better. Luckily, I’ve learnt to deal with my feelings on a completely different way. I took this online course called Go Sugar Free and it’s amazing how it helped me get that behaviour under control. (BTW, I’m not compensated in any way to talk about it, I just love it!)

    Thank you for talking about this!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 12, 2015 at 5:37 pm

      Thank you for commenting! I’ve heard of that Go Sugar Free course – all good things, too! I agree that I’m much more apt to emotional eat when I’m allowing sugar in my diet. I’ve done a few sugar fasts and I’ve been amazed at how little I want to turn to it or any other comfort food when I cut it out of my life.

  • Reply
    Anonymous
    October 10, 2015 at 10:56 am

    ❤️

  • Reply
    So
    October 16, 2015 at 3:12 am

    Hello Sonja,
    I’m Sonia and I live in France. I’ve just discovered your blog this morning and your article about comfort food and its addiction. It’s my problem and It’s particularly difficult to live with every day. It’s a desease, a everyday struggle. Not just eating a piece of cake or a cup of pop corn… But you want to eat all the cake and then all the pop corn… and there’s no end… until your stomach is over. I know a lot of people suffer from this derangement. Thanx for your article. It’s very interesting. Now i’m going to look at your blog and your recipes… because I’m always greedy… but an healthy greedy…

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 20, 2015 at 10:48 pm

      Sonia, thanks for writing. It’s difficult to live with these struggles, especially when they happen every day as you mention. You may even want to consult with a medical professional at some point if they’ve become too hard to handle on your own. Let me know if I can do anything else to help! Feel free to shoot me an email at our address (acouplecooks@gmail.com).

  • Reply
    Griff Neilson
    August 8, 2016 at 8:52 pm

    Great post Sonja! I have worked with people for over 15 years in the area nutrition and food addiction and you certainly have nailed it with the concept of self-soothing! One of the root causes that I have found beneath food addiction is one that is seldom discussed yet has a profound impact on emotional eating. This root cause has everything to do with having a firm knowledge ones PURPOSE in life, or the reason that you exist here on this earth. I actually call this a “Crystal Clear Vision” and I have found it very helpful in my own life and in the lives of my clients. I have found that clients (and myself) will turn to food or sweets when they become distracted from their true purpose. Let me use myself as an example. My purpose is to help people live a healthy lifestyle both physically and mentally. When I get distracted from my purpose it is easy to go for the quick fix or something that will give me a moment of temporary relief or escapism. When I have had a stressful day and get distracted I can escape into a bowel of ice cream and drown my stress. Doing this occasionally is fine but if I do this too frequently I will form a new habit and thus a new lifestyle that is not conducive to my health. I have found that this destructive pattern of emotional eating will NOT form if I having a purpose to focus on, which then gives me something to live for and drive towards. In my moments of temptation I gently remind myself that my actions are not aligning with my overall purpose (or mission/goal/dream ect…). I then gently remind myself of my true passion or purpose in life. I tell myself that my temporary indulgence is just that …temporary and that my actions will ultimately take me away from my greater purpose if I continue to justify my impulsive desires or self-soothing. There are times in life that we will need a little self-soothing and that is fine, but real problems such as food addiction come to those that are not living on “purpose”. There is no amount of pleasure that a bowel of ice cream or a chocolate chip cookie can possibly give me that will out weight the pleasure that I get from living on purpose…living for something greater than myself. When I am living on purpose I don’t need the self-soothing because I am being soothed by something that I am excited and passionate about…my purpose.

    Thanks again for the post, I am going to share it! Keep up the great work! :-)

    • Reply
      Sonja
      November 9, 2016 at 3:36 pm

      Thank you for this very thoughtful response and for sharing this post! I agree that getting distracted from our key purpose can lead to escapism and emotional eating of all kinds. I liked that you mentioned giving ourselves gentle reminders to stay true and on purpose! Thanks for the inspiration.

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