3 Healthy Alternatives To Emotional Eating

Emotional eating has become something of an epidemic in Western society. We live our lives always on the go, a cloud of stress constantly hovering over us. We barely have time to get in a proper meal, let alone express the anger, frustration, anxiety, or sadness that we’ve felt throughout the day.

Instead of letting these emotions naturally flow out of us – and risk being labeled “weak” or “unreliable” – we’ve looked towards unhealthy food to cram down the bubbling pot of emotions inside.


One study found that a negative mood is significantly associated with greater food intake, and that while in these lower moods, we are less likely to acknowledge the future health implications of what we’re eating.1

Many of us can find this truth in our own lives, when we’ve turned to a large slice of cake or a bag of fried chips to cope with sadness or frustration.2


While emotional eating may seem almost like a subconscious action that we can’t control, there are ways for us to take charge of our emotions and control our eating, instead of allowing our eating to control us.

In my work with thousands of clients and in dealing with my own struggles with emotional eating, I developed three steps to break the dangerous cycle of emotional eating:

  • Become aware of your emotions.
  • Develop alternatives to emotional eating.
  • Determine and release yourself from the root of the problem.

In my first article of this series, I discussed three easy ways for you to become aware of your emotions. We’re now going to look at step 2, developing alternatives to emotional eating. While we all will feel cravings every now and then, there are healthier ways to respond to those emotions and feelings than with unhealthy treats.

3 Alternatives To Try

1. Express Your Emotions

At its root, emotional eating is just an unhealthy way of expressing our emotions. Instead of feeling our emotions in a natural, healing manner, we shove them down, only to have them rise to the surface in the form of cravings. When we give ourselves the chance to truly feel and express our emotions, we will likely find that our desire to eat emotionally is reduced.


Next time you feel a sudden craving for unhealthy food (see my article for a framework to recognize symptoms of emotional eating) – set aside five minutes before you open the fridge. In those five minutes, find a private place and allow yourself to express any emotions that may be causing the cravings. You may choose to journal, talk with a trusted friend or partner, or even meditate on the emotion, allowing yourself to feel it in all corners of your body.

While it may be difficult to fight the feeling instilled in us that showing your emotions is taboo, the result is worth it, as your cravings may subside after giving your body what it really craves– true emotional expression.


2. Find Substitutes

Sometimes, those five minutes of emotional expression may not be enough to satiate your cravings. If you still are feeling an ache in your sweet tooth or dreaming of salty snack, try replacing eating with a different, more nourishing activity. Take a short walk around your neighborhood, taking in the beautiful range of sensory experiences that comes from being outside. Immerse yourself in a creative project, whether it’s painting your emotional landscape on a canvas or writing a short story or poem.

If you have a quiet place to do so, you may also consider trying the following relaxation exercise developed by cardiologist, Dr. Herbert Benson:

  • Sit quietly in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
  • Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed.
    Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word, “one”, silently to yourself. For example, breathe in … out, “one”; in .. out, “one”; etc. Breathe easily and naturally.
  • Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm.
  • When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.
  • Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace. When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating “one.”
  • With practice, the response should come with little effort.

It may be hard to tear yourself away from tempting food to another activity at first, but over time, your body will learn that cravings should be answered with a healthy, emotion-accepting activity, instead of with unhealthy food.

3. Choose Healthy Options

Despite expressing your emotions and replacing emotional eating with a healthy activity, you may find yourself still feeling the urge to eat emotionally. Fortunately, there are healthy options you can choose.


Instead of getting your salt fix from a bag of potato chips, replace it with cucumbers, bell peppers, or carrots with a bit of hummus or baba ganoush as dip. If your sweet tooth is luring you towards a cupcake or candy bar, indulge in a sweet bowl of strawberries, or a juicy peach.

Eat the snack mindfully (mindfulness has been found to reduce binge eating), savor the spectrum of flavors and colors in every bite, and stop as soon as you begin to feel full.3

Studies have found that eating fruits and vegetables lead to a more positive affect, so changing up your snacks will not only save you from the guilty cycle of emotional eating, but also may boost you out of your negative mood!4

Remember that, ultimately, you are in charge of your body. While it may seem at first like you have no control over your emotional eating, the steps above will help you regain control of your body, and redirect your path back to one of physical and emotional happiness.

Tips for step three, releasing yourself for good from the root of what is causing you to eat emotionally, can be found in my Curejoy video.