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Feeling down? Watch out for weight gain

Lesley Dobson / 15 January 2010 ( 23 October 2017 )

Feeling low can make you vulnerable where food is concerned, especially if you eat as a form of comfort when you’re stressed, anxious, bored, lonely or sad.

Chocolate chip cookies
Emotional eaters aren't simply hungry, they crave a particular food, often carbohydrates, sweet or salty.

Emotional eating is a great saboteur of any attempt at weight-loss or healthy eating.

Why we comfort eat

We’re almost programmed to see food as a source of comfort, from birth, so it’s no surprise that we can turn to it when we’re in need of a lift. ‘From the first days of our lives we learn to gain comfort through food,’ explains Tricia Woolfrey, an emotional eating hypnotherapist, trainer and coach. ‘As we grow up, we receive food as treats, or as a reward. Or we’re told ‘You can’t have any ice cream until you’ve eaten your dinner,’ which makes the ice cream look like a reward. That’s the main reason we eat when we’re low.’

‘Emotional eating is a type of coping strategy, albeit an unhealthy one’ says Chartered Psychologist Rose Aghdami, founder of ‘We turn to food, which is effective as a distraction in the short-term, but this quickly wears off, leaving us needing more of the same. In the longer term it causes secondary problems, because we put on weight, our self-esteem goes down, we beat ourselves up about it and can feel depressed.’ And once the food has gone, we’ll still have those uncomfortable feelings.

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We rarely turn to carrot sticks and grapes as comfort food – we are, after all, often conditioned to eat foods high in sugar and fat, to take our minds off boredom or stress. Some of these foods, chocolate, for instance, trigger our bodies to release feel-good hormones, which can draw us back to them again and again. Emotional eating can be extremely unhealthy in the long-term. We can pile on weight, and increase our cholesterol levels, putting us at risk of a range of health problems.

Take control of your snacking

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Record your feelings and what you eat

The key to tackling emotional eating, is to recognise that it is affecting your eating habits. ‘Most of us don’t know why we eat more than we should,’ says Rose Aghdami. ‘And people who eat emotionally have often lost sight of the idea of feeling full or hungry, because they ‘top up’ so often that they rarely allow themselves to feel hungry.’

‘The first step is to ask yourself ‘what’s making me prowl round the kitchen?’,’ says Rose Aghdami. ‘Keep a Food and Mood diary for a week. Record what your feelings are just before you eat, what you eat, when you eat it, and where. Sum up your feelings in one word, for instance, bored or upset.’

By the end of the week patterns may emerge in the way you eat. You may discover that you head for the biscuit-tin mid-afternoon, or wolf down crisps or chocolate in the early evening. Knowing when your weak spots in the day happen can help you combat the urge to eat. Knowing the feelings that trigger your eating can also help, by enabling you to find other distractions.

How to keep a food diary

Calorie-free distractions

If you eat to give yourself a reward, because you’ve tackled a difficult task or dealt with a problem you’ve been putting off, find another way of rewarding yourself. What else would make you feel good? A long soak in the bath, fifteen minutes to yourself with a book or a favourite piece of music? Start giving yourself treats that don’t involve food.

Are you feeling stressed? Think about other ways you could deal with that tension. Learn a relaxation technique, such as meditation, go to yoga classes, maybe start by just walking more.

Perhaps you’re feeling lonely? Instead of snacking, phone someone you like, arrange a get-together, and take positive steps to improve your social life. If you’re bored, find something challenging to do – a problem that needs solving or a puzzle that will give you a mental work-out.

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Eat in a balanced way throughout the day

Making wider-ranging improvements to your eating habits can also make it easier to deal with emotional eating. ‘Look at how you eat throughout the day,’ advises Alison Jenkins, a Master Practitioner in Eating Disorders. ‘Some people will have a tiny breakfast, a small lunch, and then eat through the evening.’

Eating in a more balanced way through the day, with a mixture of carbohydrates and protein and plenty of fruit and vegetables, will help you to get back on track. And if you know you’ll find it hard to resist the foods you’ve come to regard as treats, don’t have them in the house.

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Are you an 'emotional eater'? Spot the signs

  • You aren't simply hungry, you have a craving for a particular food, often carbohydrates, sweet or salty.
  • You're suddenly hungry, and feel an urgent need to eat.
  • You tend to eat alone, in secret. People who eat good food just because they love it, tend to eat with other people.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.