Emotional & Compulsive Eating Skills and Strategies


Michelle Dougherty RD

Eating Disorders Nutritionist

Most individuals I counsel engage in emotional eating. Emotional and compulsive/binge eating is primarily fueled by our thoughts and feelings; however, there are skills that are nutritionally based that will help. The following is a list of 10 nutritional skills for combating emotional eating.

1. EAT BASED ON YOUR CURRENT HUNGER AND NEEDS. Avoid the temptation to over analyze your food. Avoid making choices based on what you previously ate or how you plan to eat. Make reasonable choices to be satisfied in the moment, often overeating is a consequence of under eating, attempts at “perfect” that result in judging ourselves and our food. “Fixing” the last meal or binge doesn’t work, forgive, forget, move on…

2. EAT WHAT YOU WANT IN FRONT OF OTHERS. Hiding foods or eating certain foods only when alone occurs when we feel ashamed or embarrassed about our food. No one should be judging your food, least of all you. This produces behaviors of eating that include hoarding, isolation, bingeing along with feelings of shame and guilt. Portion control and eating honestly in full view of others will deflate these behaviors.

3. AVOID MAKING EXCUSES FOR YOUR FOOD OR YOUR WEIGHT. Stop promising “I’ll eat better tomorrow” or “I don’t usually eat this” Verbalizing diet mentality, reinforces the attitude that dieting is good and you are “good” if your diet, “bad” if you don’t. Replace diet mentality with positive thoughts, such as…”I am a great gardener, lawyer or friend”.

4. STAY ON SCHEDULE. Be consistent with your meal times, no exceptions. A baby cries when it is hungry. You may not break down in tears, but eating is not optional. You may not be sensitive to hunger cues, therefore, a regular pattern of eating is your first line of defense against bingeing. Focus on the PROCESS of normal eating with consistent times.

5. WHEN YOU ARE HUNGRY ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE SATISFIED NOT JUST FULL. Eat what you want. If you fill up on carrots, you probably won’t be satisfied. Balance out your choices. Consider the food groups and portion control. Examples include; less carrots dipped in hummus, or an apple with peanut butter can prevent overeating later.

6. DESSERT WITH DINNER. Plan to have dessert, no rules, no bargains or limits, fit them into your meal plan. When your goal is to end binge/compulsive eating, elimination of desserts and favorite foods won’t work. Suggestions for not bingeing include; having dessert with dinner, don’t wait until you are really hungry later, you are more likely to binge/overeat. A nighttime snack might be more manageable if it is not a “trigger food”.

7. ORDER DESSERT WITH OTHERS. This is a great opportunity to enjoy a dessert with less opportunity to binge. Practice portion control with dinner and save room for dessert. You may also have dessert a little time later while still in the company of others, plan an activity after dessert for distraction, in the event negative thoughts and urges surface.

8. SELF ANALYSIS. When you journal, record urges or behaviors, recall what preceded the event and consider what can be changed. It might be simple; walking in the front door instead of the kitchen after work. Or involve more planning; packing lunches at night. Awareness is part of the process, regret and remorse focus on the problem. Become active in the process.

9. BE MINDFUL OF MINDLESS EATING. Meals are meals, no question. When it comes to snack times or non-scheduled eating times, quickly scan your motives, emotions, and physical hunger. If you are not really hungry, ask why you want to eat. Is there something else you could do instead, do that. Check back on hunger in 30 minutes. 

10. KEEP A LIST OF SKILLS; ALTERNATIVE S TO MINDLESS EATING. Write in your journal, see if you can identify the feelings; anger, resentment, loneliness, or anxiety. Create a list that matches feelings with alternate actions; anxiety= bubble bath, painting your nails, coloring. Loneliness = call a friend, meet for coffee, online support group, tired = go to bed! Resentment = go for a walk, journal, yoga or meditation tape/class. Additional suggestions; organize a junk drawer, scrapbook, knit or read. 

Further Reading