This article is about something very real: emotional eating. Food can often help us soothe negative feelings or emotions in the short-term. In times of stress, sadness, exhaustion, or anger, impulsive or binge eating (eating past the point of satiety) can provide immediate pleasure or comfort. On the flipside, some people will completely forget to eat or avoid food when they are stressed. Both of these reactions are completely natural, however, they are certainly not the best for your health and wellbeing.

Perhaps the worst part about emotional eating is that it can start a vicious cycle: you feel guilty about your behaviour, and those bad feelings cause more stress, and bring you back to that tub of ice cream or McDonald’s drive-through. This post is not going to go into the psychology of impulsive or binge eating, but it is going to provide some concrete tips and strategies to help you avoid making emotional eating a habit.

1. In times of stress, try to maintain routine. The closer you stick to plans you made when you were in a better mental state, the less it leaves to spur-of-the-moment decisions or the need to react to things. For example, if you know what you are having for dinner because it is already in a Tupperware in your office fridge, you are less likely to be tempted to grab junk food on our way home. Another important part of your routine that it is important to maintain is bedtime. Getting enough sleep will help combat stress, and also help you avoid late-night food regrets.

2. Just eat. When you are eating meals, or even planned snacks, try not to be doing anything else at the same time. Don’t watch TV, don’t be doing school work, don’t be driving, whatever it is. Chew your food slowly, and try to enjoy it! In times of stress, it may feel like you “don’t have time” to eat without multi-tasking, but it is unlikely going to take longer than 30 minutes to eat. Further, if you are trying to eat and work at the same time, that work is probably not going to be very good. Try to take that time to relax and focus on your meal.

3. Don’t try to “balance” a binge. If you overeat, do not try to “set it right” by not eating the next meal, or eating significantly less. Try to think of redeeming yourself by going back to sustainable behaviours, not by punishing or depriving yourself.

4. If you do overeat from stress, forgive yourself. You are only human. If this happened to a friend or loved one, what would you tell them? Probably to let it go, move on, not to beat themselves up. You have permission to give this advice to yourself!

5. Learn from setbacks. When something goes wrong in the pursuit of any goal or in the implementation of a plan (and it always will) try to see it as an opportunity to grow and adapt. If you regret skipping a meal or overeating, try not to dwell or stew in your dissatisfaction. Instead, reflect with the intent to change. Write down what happened, what factors prompted the situation, and brainstorm what the things are that are in your control that could have prevented it.

These are all strategies for those who find themselves overeating or avoiding food every once in a while, when things are hard for short periods of time (work or school is are unusually busy, you are having relationship problems, there is a death in the family, you are fighting an illness, etc.) If it feels like you are in a constant struggle with overeating or avoiding food, it may be a sign that other things in your life need to change, or that you should seek professional help.