7 ways to overcome emotional eating this winter

Photo credit: Mindstyle - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mindstyle - Getty Images

From Good Housekeeping

We’ve all done it. Munched mindlessly to take the edge off a bad mood or stressful situation. That’s because food can be a quick fix, releasing calming dopamine in the brain and temporarily making us feel better. But the trouble starts when the urge to use food to soothe becomes a hardwired habit that’s hard to stop.

And, at this time of year, comfort eating can go into overdrive. We’ve evolved with a subconscious urge to eat energy-dense food and store fat during the colder months. Having fewer daylight hours doesn’t help either, with one in three of us suffering from low mood during the winter. But the winter blues can be lifted with comforts other than food, and shorter days don’t have to lead to larger waistlines.

‘Emotional eating is never really about food,’ says Dr Jenn Bateman, a psychologist who devised The Eating Blueprint, an emotional eating programme. ‘Food has just become a way of dealing with emotion, but it’s not the only way.’

With that in mind, here's how to beat emotional eating...

1. Recognise your triggers

Research shows that about 40% of everything we do happens in a zoned-out way. Emotional eating can be one of those automatic habits. Often rooted in childhood, rewarding or soothing ourselves with a sweet treat is almost subconscious. If you want to break the pattern, awareness is key. "It’s hard to recognise emotional eating in the moment, so you need to think ahead," advises Dr Bateman. "Look at what happened in the minutes or hours before you indulged. Were you overwhelmed, sad or angry?"

For the next few days, write down every single thing you eat and note what was going on and how you were feeling. Once you get a picture of what your emotional eating triggers are, you’ll be better equipped to anticipate them. "It’s about recognising, 'I’m trying to be kind to myself by eating, but actually are there other ways I can do that?'," says Dr Bateman.

Photo credit: Peter Dazeley - Getty Images
Photo credit: Peter Dazeley - Getty Images

2. Support new habits

The habits in your life develop because they help you in some way, even if they harm you in others. Because of this, it’s hard to erase them. Instead, try replacing a bad habit with one that provides a similar benefit. "It’s easier for your mind to adopt new habits than to let go of existing ones,’ says Sally Baker, co-author of How To Feel Differently About Food (Amazon, £14.99). She says these ‘scaffolding’ techniques introduce fresh concepts in a way that builds on what you know and already do.

So, choose an aspect of your eating and use scaffolding to create a new ritual. Want to stop snacking while you watch TV? Remove unhealthy snacks from the cupboard and restock with healthy ones. When your habit takes you to the cupboard, you’ll have healthy options waiting. "You can customise your scaffolding to create new habits wherever you want to see changes," says Baker. Studies have shown it can take anywhere from 18 days to a staggering 254 days to truly form a new habit. The time it takes is different for everyone, but repetition is key.

Photo credit: samael334 - Getty Images
Photo credit: samael334 - Getty Images

3. Rethink your hunger scale

Many of us have lost touch with what hunger feels like. If you aren’t sure whether hunger is real or an emotional craving, rate fullness on a scale of one to 10. The trick is to eat when you’re at three or four, that’s slightly hungry, and stop eating when you’re at six, pleasantly satisfied.

"If you want to eat and rate your hunger above a five, it’s likely you’re 'hungry' for something else," says Dr Jenn Bateman. If your hunger number tells you that you’re not truly hungry, you’re trying to solve a problem using food. Once you’re clear on this, you can decide what you’re really hungry for – a stress-reducing hug, sleep or space to think.

If the craving persists and you don’t want to give in, try sipping flavoured water. Sniffing a vanilla scent also works for some people. Distraction that engages you mentally can help, too. Playing Tetris for three minutes was enough to quash cravings by 14% in a study published in the journal Addictive Behaviours.

Emotional hunger still not shifting? Reach for something that takes time to eat. People ate fewer calories and felt more satiated when they had to remove pistachios from their shells, according to a study in the journal Appetite.

"Whatever decision you make, feel confident you’ve made it mindfully, so you’re not left with that guilty 'food hangover'," adds Dr Bateman.

4. Use a habit-stopping device

Your brain makes up its mind up to 10 seconds before you realise it, according to research in the journal Nature. So, having a physical device that stops you in your tracks is essential if you want to make a conscious decision. "Put a band on your dominant wrist to act as a pattern-interrupt," says Dr Bateman. "When you reach for food, you’ll notice it and stop." Once you’ve stopped, wait, then ask yourself, "Where am I on the hunger scale?" You won’t need the reminder there for ever. It’s just a short-term strategy to break the habit. A week should be enough.

Photo credit: Kurhan - Getty Images
Photo credit: Kurhan - Getty Images

5. Phone a friend

Loneliness is a common trigger for comfort eating. There is nothing wrong with being on your own if you are comfortable with it. But if you long for human contact, trying to get out more will help you fill up on life instead of filling up your stomach.

So, what can you do? Make plans and be proactive. Ask friends out for a walk or step out of your comfort zone and meet new people by volunteering for a charity. The less active we are, the more likely we are to fill the time with eating, so sign up for a new exercise class or invest in a rebounder (mini trampoline) and bounce your way to 10,000 steps a day (it’s easy on the joints and good for boosting bone strength).

If you just want to relax, simply phone a friend; anything to break the habit of slipping into passive eating mode.

Photo credit: AleksandarNakic - Getty Images
Photo credit: AleksandarNakic - Getty Images

6. Try the rule of halves

Once you’ve stopped mindless eating in its tracks, you can respond instead of react. If you decide that you definitely do still want that bag of crisps or bar of chocolate, split it in half. Eat one half slowly and mindfully. Give it your full awareness, savour the flavours, enjoy the texture, chew slowly. Most of the sensory experience of food is in that first bite. You may find that, once you’ve savoured the first half, you don’t need the second.

You can try this tactic at mealtimes, too. Eat half your meal, then step away from it for five minutes. When you return to it, tune into your body and ask yourself if you’ve had enough (and should keep the leftovers) or whether you need more.

Photo credit: stevecoleimages - Getty Images
Photo credit: stevecoleimages - Getty Images

7. Change your winter mindset

According to scientists at Cornell University, we select healthy or indulgent foods depending on our moods. "When people are in a bad mood, they know something is wrong and focus on the here and now," concluded the study authors. "This kind of thinking gets us to focus on the sensory qualities of our foods, not things that are more abstract, like how nutritious the food is."

If you’re among the 29% of people in the UK who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), finding positives may be more of a challenge. Women are more likely than men to experience symptoms, which include low energy levels, low self-esteem and anxiety. If this is your trigger to reach for comfort food, it’s wise to plan for it.

Write yourself a "winter wellness prescription". Plan positive moments, such as a bath or a walk in the daylight. "These things are small but symbolically important," says Dr Bateman.

"Taking on the mindset of being kind to yourself is a learned skill. Once you start doing small acts of self-care, you send yourself the message that you are important and the compulsion to distract or reward with food lessens."

This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Good Housekeeping.

For more advice on emotional eating, visit the charity Beat's website for more information.

('You Might Also Like',)