Eat when you're hungry and stop when you’re full. Sounds simple enough, but if you've ever reached for far too many handfuls, mouthfuls, or platefuls of high-cal food in response to feelings other than hunger, you know it ain't always that easy, and can sometimes feel utterly undoable. “When you’re going through an emotional time, it’s natural to reach for things that make you feel better,” says nutrition and fitness expert JJ Virgin, author of the Virgin Diet Cookbook. “Food is such an easy crutch.”
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When you’re tempted to drown your sorrows or stress in a sack of M&Ms, these expert tips can help keep emotional—or mindless—eating in check:
1. Create a "hunger scale."
If you’ve been grazing to soothe your mood for years, it can be nearly impossible to know when you’re actually hungry, instead of tired, sad, or just plain bored. To train yourself to measure your appetite accurately, try creating your own hunger scale where one is ravenous and ten is stuffed. “You shouldn’t eat unless you are at least a five, preferably a seven,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, manager of wellness nutrition services at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. Tape your scale to your refrigerator, your office computer, the dashboard of your car—wherever you tend to overindulge—and use it to bring you into awareness.
2. Eat without distraction.
Eating can easily take an unhealthy turn when you aren’t paying attention to what you’re putting in your mouth—a common issue with emotional eating. Researchers at the University of Liverpool in England found that people who swipe at their cell phones or stare at the TV while eating gobble down up to 50 percent more food than those who are actively engaged with their meals! "Even if you’re eating for one, set the table, use a placemat, and light a candle,” says Kirkpatrick. “If you make an experience out of it, your meal will ultimately be more satisfying.”
3. Eat balanced meals.
Let’s be real: You can’t be expected to make rational, healthy food choices when you’re starving. Eating three healthy squares every day will make you less likely to become ravenous (and hangry) between meals, and therefore less likely to book it to the vending machine or convenience store for a sugary or salty hit. “People get cravings for unhealthy food because they aren’t getting enough protein, fiber, and healthy fat in their meals,” says Virgin. “Protein is very satiating, small amounts of fat send pleasure signals to the brain, and fiber slows down digestion and keeps your blood sugar levels more stable.” Start your day with nut butter and whole grains like oatmeal, or eggs and fruit, and you'll set yourself up for success.
4. Set a timer before you dig in.
If you’re not sure if you’re reaching for food because you’re harried or hungry, wait it out before putting a single morsel in your mouth. “Set a timer for ten minutes, then go send some emails or fold the laundry,” says Kirkpatrick, “and if you still want the food after that, then have it.” Do the same thing before you serve yourself seconds at dinner: Research shows it typically takes 20 minutes for your stomach to communicate a sense of fullness to the brain, so you may be refilling your plate for the wrong reasons.
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5. Keep a food journal.
It may not be new advice, but it definitely works—particularly for women who want to lose weight. A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that women who kept a food diary shed twice as many pounds as those who didn’t jot things down. “A food journal is not just a log of what you’re eating; it also helps you track your emotions,” says Kirkpatrick. Write down every food that touches your lips, and what you were feeling at the time you ate it. (You'll start to notice what’s trending, just like you would on Twitter.) If you gobble down candy whenever there's a work deadline, for example, make sure there’s none in your office during crunch time.
6. Banish trigger foods from your house.
If you can’t control yourself around sleeves of Chips Ahoy!, don’t keep 'em around. The easiest way to hold yourself to that rule? Don’t go to the grocery store when you’re stressed out—or starving. “You are way more likely to buy the cookies, and they’ll be sitting in your pantry waiting for your next emotional outburst,” says Kirkpatrick. And if your family members would rebel if you banished all junk food from the house, at least keep it out of sight. A Cornell University study found that people ate two more candies each day when they were visible compared to when they were stashed away.
7. Practice portion control.
If you’re an emotional eater, it’s easy to polish off mass quantities of your food of choice without even noticing. To keep yourself from bingeing, parcel out the chips or cookies into small sandwich baggies and serve yourself only one bag at a time. “If you have to get up from the couch to grab another one, it gives you the chance to stop yourself from having more,” says Kirkpatrick. And science backs up this theory: People ate 25 percent fewer crackers when given four 100-calorie packages than one 400-calorie one, according to a recent study in the journal Obesity.
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8. Don’t eat just because other people are.
It’s all too easy to graze when other people around you have the munchies. And research shows you’re more likely to fall victim to eating when others are if you’re the type who’s wired to maintain social harmony. A study from Case Western Reserve University found that people-pleasers are significantly more likely to eat when they’re already full, just so that others feel more comfortable. If you’re sharing a table with someone who’s noshing when you’re not hungry, shed the guilt and be honest. It’s perfectly okay to sip a cup of tea instead to be social.
9. Play with your dog.
If you’re reaching for food to feel better, go find your pooch. A study from the journal Hormones and Behavior found that interacting with your four-legged friend releases oxytocin, the feel-good hormone that helps boost mood. Better yet, take the furball for a walk, so you’re burning extra calories—in addition to not consuming any—and generating more oxytocin, too. Don’t have a pet? Do something else that makes you happy, like calling a friend, getting a massage, or stepping out into the sunshine. “Vitamin D can do wonders for the mood,” says Virgin.
10. Recognize your plate may be too full.
If you know you're prone to eating when you feel overwhelmed, take a step back and reassess your situation. “Take an inventory of what you’re tolerating in your life, and what you're able to change your perspective on,” says Virgin. Maybe you have a friend who’s an energy vampire and sucks your tank dry, or you’re taking care of a disabled parent. If you don’t have solutions in place to deal with life’s challenges, food is an easy crutch. “Some stressors we can’t get rid of, but you can set your boundaries,” says Virgin. Enlist the help of others if you feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities, and don’t be afraid to talk to a professional if you're struggling on your own."