Have you ever felt so anxious over something that you found yourself crunching steadily through a party-size bag of chips? Has disappointment ever moved you to devour spoonful after spoonful of ice cream right out of the container? Do you sometimes feel that your only friend in the world is the box of chocolate, cupcakes, or cookies on your kitchen counter? We eat to fill our belly but sometimes to release the angst of anxiety, soothe the pang of sadness, or feed the hunger of loneliness. 

Who hasn’t gobbled chocolate in the midst of a stressful moment? But when emotion drives you to the candy drawer over and over again, day after day, you’re on the road to obesity and poor health. How, though, in moments of weakness, can you find the strength to turn away?

For help in understanding emotional eating and what to do about it, we talked with Pamela Peeke, MD, chair of the Curves and Jenny Craig Science Advisory Board and author of The Hunger Fix: The Three-Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction.

Here’s what she told us. 


Curves: Why do we eat when we’re stressed or sad? Why don’t we push out negative feelings with a hard, sweaty workout?

Peeke: We want to soothe ourselves, so we turn to comfort foods. Physical activity is a great way to de-stress mentally and physically, but many of us don’t think of it as soothing. You need to reframe it. Take a walk outdoors because it’s lovely. Go to Curves because it’s an opportunity to be with your friends. When you understand first-hand how activity soothes anxiety and energizes a sad or tired mind, you’ll start choosing it over chocolate.


 Curves: Why don’t steamed broccoli or a bowl of fresh berries make the list of comfort foods?

Peeke: We’re geared to be attracted to certain tastes like sweetness. When we were primal, we had only berries and other fruits—the palatables. Now we have hyperpalatables—foods that are high in sugar, fat, salt. They have a pleasing texture. They’re soft and creamy, and when we eat them our brain releases the feel-good chemical dopamine.

There’s a psychological play here, too. Ice cream, cookies, cupcakes are the special treats or rewards our moms gave us when we were growing up, so there’s a boatload of memories associated with them. All of this elicits a positive response in the brain. We feel good. Stress is reduced. But it’s only temporary. When we reach the bottom of the cookie jar, we feel guilty, and stress goes way back up again.


Curves: How can we stop ourselves from overeating when we’re anxious or sad?

Peeke: Try to HALT temptation. Here’s what I mean: As you’re reaching for that bag of chips or quart of ice cream, stop and ask yourself, are you feeling Hurt, Anxious/Angry, Lonely, or Tired? These are the usual culprits that spur emotional eating. If you answer yes, then halt! Choose anything other than food: Do something mindless, go for a walk, go to Curves, go to a movie (but bring only enough cash for your movie ticket).


Curves: And if we find ourselves turning to comfort foods regularly?

Peeke: You’ve got to drill down to what’s really bothering you. Make a list of the stressors in your life. Usually that will give rise to the deeper problem. Then you need to figure out a strategy to deal with that problem. In the meantime, find and acknowledge healthy ways of handling stress. For example, notice how when you move your body, you feel good in your mind. It takes an integrated approach.


Curves: When is emotional eating a serious problem?

Peeke: Ask yourself these two questions when food is in front of you:

  1. If I eat this will I feel a loss of control?
  2. If I eat this will I feel shame, blame, and guilt?

If your answer to either or both of these questions is yes, you're hooked on the food or beverage in front of you and consuming it will only lead you to overeat or binge.   Instead, substitute with a healthier option if you're truly hungry and it's time for a meal or snack. However, if you're constantly feeling out of control, then you may wish to start a weight-management program that has experience with emotional eating, such as Curves Complete.


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* Results may vary from person to person