By: Melissa Mitri, MS, RD
Do you struggle with eating for emotional reasons, especially when you know you’re not hungry? If you know you’re not hungry but you find yourself eating anyways, there are things to do instead of eating in these moments. Then, you won’t sabotage your weight loss goals.
Many of my clients share these same struggles and eat for non-hunger reasons. These reasons may be when they’re bored, stressed, sad, angry, happy, or just out of habit. The process of simply eating only when you’re hungry is not as easy as it sounds.
It’s so easy to become a mindless eater or eat for emotional reasons. This is especially if you’re still working from home, are a stay-at-home mom, or are just don’t stop all day to take a break. But the truth is that if you’re frequently eating for emotional reasons, you’re probably finding it a lot more difficult to lose weight.
It can be incredibly frustrating when you feel like you’re doing all the right things but not seeing results. These mindless eating episodes keep coming up and slowing your progress down. They can get in the way if you don’t address them head-on and replace them with other healthier habits.
Fortunately, there are things you can do instead of eating to help manage your emotions and distract yourself. When it comes to breaking unhealthy habits, you need to replace them with a new habit to be successful. Otherwise, it will take too much willpower to just say “no” to food.
So let’s talk about 7 things you can do instead of eating when emotions strike next time.
7 Things to Do Instead of Eating Mindlessly
1. Drink Water
The act of drinking water occupies your hands just like eating does. Better yet, drink from a straw so you get the sensation that you’re chewing! Not only is drinking water a healthy distraction from emotional eating, but it may also help you eat less at the next meal, according to recent research.
2. Pop Some Gum
Popping gum is another way to mimic eating through the act of chewing. If you’re feeling anxious or stressed, chewing gum can also be an effective stress reliever. It’s also been seen to reduce hunger and cravings and make you feel full.
While chewing gum is not necessarily a miracle cure, one study showed those who chewed gum felt just as satisfied as drinking a high-calorie beverage.
3. Call a Friend
If you find yourself reaching into the pantry to suppress emotions, calling a good friend may be just what you need. With the business of modern life, it can get easy to get caught up in all the day-to-day “stuff.” With this, you may not keep in touch with friends or family as much as you’d like.
Having a close friend or family member to vent to is so helpful when you need a non-food outlet. **Tip – it should be someone that you know will listen to you fully without interrupting. This person can also be another accountability buddy to check in on you and see how you’re doing working towards your health goals.
As a nutrition and weight loss coach, I always provide a high level of accountability to my clients. In addition, I always encourage them to have another day-to-day accountability buddy. This can be a close, like-minded friend who will be supportive.
4. Go for a Walk
Walking is a major stress reliever, and one of my personal favorites when I need a break. And the good news is it doesn’t have to be a lot – even 10 minutes will have a noticeable effect on your mood and mindset. This alone can turn off the urge to mindlessly eat!
Walking also burns calories and can aid in weight loss, and is an especially great workout for beginners. But it’s not just for beginners. Many of my clients who are seasoned exercisers also love to walk and see results from it when done consistently.
So the next time you’re feeling burnt out, step out and go for a quick stroll around the neighborhood. The combination of physical activity and fresh air does wonders for your mood. After a walk, you’ll find yourself feeling like a different person when you get back.
5. Breathe It Out
Sometimes you just need to feel all the feelings and breathe them out. When you eat as a coping mechanism, it’s often used as a way to suppress an uncomfortable emotion.
But the reality is that doing this doesn’t solve the problem. It instead creates a bigger problem that leads to more suppression, guilt, and yo-yo weight cycling.
Breathing it out simply means when you’re in the moment and you want to eat, you walk away from that room and take a few deep breaths. During these breaths, you want to feel whatever emotion it is you’re feeling without judgment.
Allow yourself to feel the emotion, even if it is uncomfortable. This allows you to accept and acknowledge it’s there without suppressing it. Tell yourself that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable and it’s normal to want to suppress that emotion.
Remind yourself that you’ll be okay if you don’t give in to your cravings right away. The only time you need to (and should) eat is when you are physically hungry.
For more on the difference between emotional and physical hunger, click here.
Journaling your thoughts can be incredibly therapeutic when trying to manage tough emotions or just the daily chaos of life. Plus, if you are more introverted or just prefer not to talk about your feelings with others, journaling may be a great alternative way to vent.
Start with just 5-10 minutes a day of daily journaling, or simply journal at the moment when you feel you need it. Keep your journal close by so you see it right away when you need that outlet.
7. Step outside
Sometimes a change of environment is all you need. Picture this – you just finished a stressful work call and you’re walking through the kitchen. You see a plate of cookies on the counter and quickly grab 3 without a thought. This is an environmental trigger, so in this case, you just have to change the environment you’re in.
Instead, it’s helpful to immediately step outside on the front or back porch and breathe in the fresh air (even if it’s cold!). This change of scenery reframes your thoughts and helps serve as a needed distraction. Stay outside for a few minutes if you can, and you’ll likely find yourself much calmer when you go back in.
What Causes Mindless Eating in the First Place?
Okay, so these are a bunch of things you can do at the moment, but how can you prevent yourself from becoming a mindless eater in the first place?
Eating mindlessly often occurs when you’re not properly addressing your emotions, either because you’re too busy or because you are knowingly avoiding them. Either way, these emotions eventually catch up and cause you to then turn to food as a coping mechanism.
Mindless eating can also occur if you have a lot of stress in your life and don’t practice enough self-care. If you’re not taking any time for yourself, you will be more likely to turn to food as a reward after a long day.
How to Prevent Yourself from Becoming a Mindless Eater
The first step I take with my clients is digging into any emotions that are getting in the way of their goals, to determine the root of the problem leading to mindless eating.
For starters, it’s important to first incorporate more self-care into your life. It doesn’t have to be anything major, expensive, or time-consuming – just 5-10 minutes each day is enough! This can be journaling 10 minutes a day, reading a book, or a yoga practice.
Whatever it is, doing it daily is what is most important. This will help put you in a better headspace throughout the day so you are less likely to turn to food later on.
Keeping a healthy environment in your house also helps. This means healthy, satisfying snacks and meals are front and center, and your trigger foods are farther away, in the freezer, or just not in plain sight.
This will help train your brain so it’s harder to turn to food for comfort. When the food is not as easily accessible, you will have to put more conscious thought into eating it when you know you’re not hungry.
Bottom Line – Things to Do Instead of Eating When You’re Not Hungry
I’m a big fan of visual reminders. One tactic that works for a lot of my clients is putting a sticky note on their pantry that says something like “am I really hungry?” or “how am I feeling right now?” This serves as a visual reminder of your goals and can force you to take a step back and think about your habits.
If you’re trying to lose weight but you’re stuck in the endless battle of mindless eating, there is hope. I work with my 1:1 clients to help them identify their triggers for mindless eating, develop specific strategies to stop it, and learn what foods are best for their bodies.
And the less mindless eating that occurs, the more weight loss will naturally come (without “dieting”). If you need accountability and support in your weight loss journey, sign up for a FREE nutrition strategy session to get started.