Emotional eating can be a frustrating yet common barrier when coaching clients who are hoping to improve health or achieve weight loss. Defined as “overeating in response to negative emotions” (Frayn, Livshits and Knäuper, 2018), emotional eating usually happens during periods of high stress, anxiety, depression, sadness or anger. The act of eating emotionally involves using food in an effort to numb uncomfortable feelings, despite not actually being hungry.
Emotional eating prevents clients from being in touch with their true hunger and fullness cues, which can make overeating more frequent. Emotional eating habits are usually deeply rooted, and in some cases have been a coping mechanism used since childhood or adolescence. As such, it should be viewed as a challenging habit to overcome versus a weakness or a lack of self-restraint on the part of the client. It’s particularly important to avoid blaming or shaming clients who experience emotional eating, or to expect them to simply have “more willpower” or stick to a stricter diet, as this increased guilt or shame can worsen the problem and potentially lead to more emotional eating.
Experiencing negative emotions such as frustration, anger and sadness are all part of normal life. Rather than finding alternative ways to ignore or distract from the stress caused by these negative emotions, you can offer your clients a “toolbox” of resources and healthy strategies to acknowledge, cope with and practice managing stress in healthy ways.
Stress management is an important skill for health and exercise professionals to focus on (regardless of whether clients are experiencing emotional eating), as increased stress can lead to poor quality of sleep, low energy and increased stress hormones, which can lead to weight gain, reduced energy and poorer quality of life.
Scope of Practice
As health coaches and exercise professionals, your role is not to treat, diagnose or provide stand-in therapy for clients. In cases where clients are experiencing debilitating stress, anxiety, depression or binge eating, it may be necessary to refer out to mental health professionals.
What’s the difference between binge eating and emotional eating?
Binge eating is an eating disorder characterized by frequent episodes of loss-of-control eating. If you suspect your client may be experiencing binge eating, he or she will need support from a medical and/or mental health professional. While mindful eating techniques may be beneficial to people experiencing binge eating, eating disorder treatment is outside your scope of practice. Other professionals who could provide support for clients experiencing binge eating disorder include registered dietitians who specialize in eating disorders, therapists or other mental health professionals.
What Causes Emotional Eating?
Research shows that increased dieting can contribute to unhealthy relationships with food and a propensity to eat emotionally (van Strien, 2018). It’s more important to help clients learn to understand their emotions versus trying to “control” their eating with stricter dieting, which may lead to yo-yo dieting.
Building rapport and having empathy should be your top priority, as this will allow your clients to feel comfortable, open and honest. Any perceived judgment may lead to clients feeling increased shame or guilt, which can contribute to more emotional eating.
The Stress Management Toolbox
Strategies to help manage stress or other negative emotions include, among others, mindfulness exercises, therapy and physical exercise. While each strategy can be effective, they may not all be appropriate for every client. For this reason, it is important to collaborate with clients to explore what may help them to manage their own stress.
Helping clients adopt the habit of shifting their attention with mindfulness techniques, versus avoiding or numbing emotions, can help them learn to deal with stress in a healthy way and change their emotional eating habits (Frayn, Livshits and Knäuper, 2018). It may also be helpful to have clients check in with themselves on a daily or weekly basis to make sure stress isn’t increasing or feeling “out of control.”
Just as healthy nutrition and exercise habits can and should be used to “manage health” on a daily basis, the regular use of stress-management techniques can help individuals avoid feeling burned out or out of control.
The following practices and activities may be useful in helping clients manage stress in a healthy way:
- Meditation or deep breathing
- Body scan
- Calling a friend
- Taking a walk
- Yoga or stretching (including a short practice at home, or a class at the gym)
- Going outside for fresh air
- Playing a favorite playlist
- Taking a nap
- Prioritizing getting more sleep
- Daily exercise
- Balanced nutrition habits
- Personal rituals like drinking tea or reading a book before bed, a coffee ritual in the morning, or a bath-time ritual on the weekend
- Prioritizing hobbies and friendships
- Art (drawing, adult coloring books, painting, etc.)
It is important to note that the purpose of utilizing these tools is not to ignore trauma, ongoing mental health struggles or grief. In severe cases, support from a therapist or other mental health professional is highly recommended.
Coaching in Action
Here are some sample open-ended questions you can use to help your clients think about how they can manage their emotions in healthy ways:
- What would the healthiest version of you do to deal with a stressful day [with the kids, at work, etc.]? What activities might help you deal with stress other than using food?
- Imagine your life six months from now. You’ve completely overcome your emotional eating habit. What helped you get there?
- If you come home from work tomorrow and are feeling stressed, what could you do instead of heading to the pantry or picking up fast food? What could you do today to plan for that outcome and set yourself up for success?
You can also use motivational interviewing techniques when discussing client emotions. For example, a statement such as “Even after having such a stressful day, you still arrived at our session on time. You are persistent.” can help a client realize that his or her emotions are valid and not something that needs to be suppressed or numbed with anything, including food. Remind your clients that it is O.K. to “feel” the feeling for a while, whether it be stress, disappointment, frustration, etc.
How to Use Mindful Eating to Manage Emotional Eating
Mindful eating is characterized by slowing down while eating, noticing hunger and fullness cues, and eating until feeling satisfied (versus overly stuffed or sick). While research on emotional eating and the use of mindfulness-based interventions in weight loss is relatively new, several studies have investigated the benefits of mindful eating on emotional eating and weight loss.
A 2019 study, for example, found mindful eating techniques to be helpful in weight-loss interventions, specifically in women who struggled with overweight and obesity (Czepczor-Bernat et al., 2019). And a 2018 clinical trial found mindfulness techniques to be beneficial when utilized as a complementary intervention in the treatment of overweight and obesity (Salvo et al., 2018). However, it is worth noting that mindful eating is not meant to be a replacement for other approaches such as exercise and nutrition, but rather as a combined approach.
According to the findings of a 2017 literature review on the impact of mindfulness techniques on changing eating behaviors, “mindfulness and mindful eating interventions can help reduce emotional eating and eating in response to external cues which are important behaviors related to obesity” (Warren, Smith and Ashwell, 2017). While these findings are encouraging, keep in mind that eating mindfully or honoring hunger or fullness cues can be abstract concepts to many clients, especially if they are used to eating on the go or rarely pay attention to their body’s cues. The following strategies can be used to help clients learn to practice eating mindfully.
- Help clients develop the habit of eating without distractions to more clearly identify fullness cues. This includes turning off the television or other screens, including phones, eating at the table whenever possible, and slowing down while eating. Strategies to help clients slow down while eating include putting the fork down between bites, taking a drink of water between bites, or even counting chews and aiming for more chewing before swallowing food.
- Emotional eating can happen when clients are overly hungry. Help clients avoid getting too hungry by eating regular meals and snacks throughout the day. In the case of very busy clients, having a reminder on their phone or calendar for when it’s meal or snack time, in addition to keeping small snacks in their gym bag, purse or car, can prevent the “need” to stop for fast food or make a meal decision while being overly hungry.
- The 1−10 hunger scale can help clients identify their hunger level before and after mealtimes (Figure 1). Using this tool can help clients differentiate between true hunger and other emotions. Challenge clients to use the hunger scale to name their level of hunger prior to eating, and after eating, as well as any time they want to reach for a snack. In some cases, they may find they reach for a snack when they aren’t actually hungry, which can lead to increased awareness around hunger and fullness cues.
Figure 1. The Hunger Scale (adapted from Cardello et al., 2005).
- Help your clients learn to stop at about 80% full by eating slowly, starting with smaller portions, serving balanced meals (foods with fiber and protein are especially satiating) and waiting 20 minutes before reaching for a second serving of any food.
- Using a food journal that features the hunger scale and provides space to name emotions can help clients identify emotional eating “triggers” (Figure 2). Naming the emotional state can help clients realize they are simply feeling a certain way. Rather than suppress the emotion, allow clients to explore why they are feeling a particular way and if there are any patterns they notice with their emotional eating habits. Clients may realize they typically emotionally eat after a certain work meeting, during stressful schedules or when their children are behaving in a particular way; with this information, they can plan ahead for future days.
Figure 2. Sample Food Journal
- Urge clients to create a plan for those times when they feel compelled to eat emotionally. Decide on a task that can remove the client from the situation for 15 to 20 minutes to work through the emotion. This might include taking a walk, calling a friend, turning on a certain playlist, journaling about the emotion or consuming a certain drink such as lemon water, sparkling water or tea.
- Discuss how clients typically feel after an emotional eating episode. If they typically feel sad, ashamed or worse than before, remind them that using food to numb their emotions isn’t effective for very long, and may even make them feel worse. Discuss things that do help them feel good, proud, happy or confident in the long run.
- Remind clients to stay hydrated. It’s common to confuse thirst and hunger, but increased hydration can make it easier for clients to understand true hunger. Having a water goal or starting each meal or snack with a glass of water can help clients increase hydration.
Remember, strict food rules can worsen emotional eating, and “off-limits” foods can easily become foods that are highly craved. Creating a plan around a typical food that a client emotionally eats can make it less of a “forbidden food.” For example, limiting dessert to two times per week or having a small bag of chips with lunch on Fridays rather than completely removing these foods from the diet can often be a more effective approach.
Overall, helping clients identify common emotional triggers and create a supportive home (or work) environment where they can easily make healthy choices, while also focusing on one small mindful eating or stress-management technique at a time, can help clients overcome emotional eating and develop healthy stress-management habits.
These habit-based goals, which clients can use to begin eating mindfully, can be incorporated into SMART goals by making them measurable and time-bound (e.g., at dinner every night for two weeks).
- Stop eating at 80% full.
- Put the fork down between bites.
- Turn off screens while eating all meals and snacks.
- Eat meals and snacks at the table without distractions as often as possible.
- Begin each lunch and dinner with a glass of water and a serving of vegetables to avoid feeling overly hungry and eating quickly at mealtime.
Czepczor-Bernat, K. et al. (2019). The moderating effects of mindful eating on the relationship between emotional functioning and eating styles in overweight and obese women. Eating and Weight Disorders - Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity.
Frayn, M., Livshits, S. and Knäuper, B. (2018). Emotional eating and weight regulation: A qualitative study of compensatory behaviors and concerns. Journal of Eating Disorders, 6, 1.
Salvo, V. et al. (2018). Mindfulness as a complementary intervention in the treatment of overweight and obesity in primary health care: Study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Trials, 19, 1. doi: 10.1186/s13063-018-2639-y
van Strien, T. (2018). Causes of emotional eating and matched treatment of obesity. Current Diabetes Reports, 18, 6.
Warren, J.M., Smith, N. and Ashwell, M. (2017). A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: Effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms. Nutrition Research Reviews, 30, 2, 272–283.