Stop emotional eating: woman diving into doughnut
(Image credit: Getty Images/fStop)

Is your appetite out of control? Finished your meal, but want more?

You’re not alone. A study by Listerine found that 65% of us snack at least once between meals, with 18% admitting that snacking has become a habit. And it’s not simply greed that has caused the average British woman’s waistline to expand six inches in the past 60 years*. Our busy, modern lifestyles are to blame, too. But how do we stop emotional eating?

“We’ve lost touch,” says Dr Aria Campbell-Danesh, a behaviour psychologist who specialises in weight management. “The human appetite is designed to regulate the amount of food that our bodies need. However, in a society in which we’re bombarded with food advertising and high-sugar foods engineered to promote overconsumption, we’re off-kilter.”

It sounds simple, but taking our relationship with food back to basics could be the solution. That means three balanced meals a day, enjoyed without distractions. Yet a survey by British Lion Eggs found that 29% of us eat just one meal a day. “Family responsibilities, relationships and work demands mean that mealtimes are frequently relegated in importance,” says Dr Aria. “We skip meals, eat in our cars and scoff a sandwich while checking emails. This all aids overeating.” So if you love eating while watching Netflix, it could be showing on your waistline!

Emotional eating – what is it and why do we do it?

And while mindful eating helps, if you’ve been known to grab chocolate after a hard day, you’ll know that cravings are closely linked to emotions. “We all eat to change how we feel,” explains Dr Aria. “We’re more motivated to eat if we’re sad, angry or bored, or as a reward.”

These responses can be exasperated during the menopause, when hormones fluctuate. “The drop in oestrogen and progesterone causes an increased craving for sugar,” explains Dr Marilyn Glenville, author of Natural Solutions to Menopause. “You need to keep everything in balance. And, if you’re not getting enough nutrients on a daily basis, then your body is just hungry and this is what can cause the cravings.”

One hormone that plays a key role in hunger is leptin. “If you’re finishing balanced meals but are still hungry, then something’s not right and the guilty party might be leptin,” says Steve Bennett, author of Primal Cure.

“After we’ve eaten, our body is supposed to tell us that we are full by dispatching leptin from our fat stores to tell us to stop sending supplies. But if something goes wrong with our leptin balance then we will crave food all day.”

Sound like you? Your GP can arrange a blood test to determine if you have a problem with leptin levels and, if you do, they’ll advise lifestyle changes to reverse the condition, such as losing weight, exercising more and getting yourself into a more regular sleep pattern.

How much should I eat?

“The easiest way to stop emotional eating is to reconnect to your body’s natural appetite system,” says Dr Aria. “The more that we can move towards eating when we’re hungry and stopping when we’re full (but could still eat more), the less likely we will be to overeat. For most people, this will result in having three meals (and one or two snacks) per day.”

Switching to a fibre-rich diet could also curb cravings. “Fibre flushes toxins and hormones through the body and keeps you fuller for longer,” says Bennett. Good sources include wholewheat pasta, whole grains, dark leafy veg, brown rice and tomatoes. Creating new habits can help too.

And don’t fear fats! “Fats don’t turn into sugar in our bodies, but carbs do,” explains Bennett. “Which is why, shortly after a carb-loaded meal, we feel hungry again.” He recommends healthy fats rich in omega-3 – such as salmon, nuts, avocado, coconuts and olives – but, of course, in moderation. The NHS recommends women shouldn’t eat more than 70g of fat daily, which isn’t much considering there is 29g fat in an average avocado!

Best healthy snacks to stop emotional eating

Need something between meals? Dr Aria recommends sticking to “real” foods rather than “healthy” snack bars, to aid slow energy release and prevent blood sugar spikes. But remember to keep portions small.

  • Half a smashed avocado on one slice of sourdough
  • Peppers and courgettes with houmous
  • One wholegrain pitta with baba ganoush
  • Crab meat and mayo on one slice of rye bread
  • One poached egg with smoked salmon
  • Sliced apple with a spoonful of nut butter
  • Medjool dates filled with walnuts and pecans
  • Greek yogurt with fresh raspberries and blueberries

Understanding food cravings

You’re craving: Coffee

You need… more energy

A sudden urge for a strong coffee could be a sign of iron deficiency. Not having enough iron to help transport oxygen around the body causes lethargy, often fuelling the need for a caffeine hit.

You’re craving: Chocolate

You need… comfort

We may crave chocolate because psychologically, we need a “treat” and, physiologically, we need a sugar fix.

You’re craving: Curry

You need… an immunity boost

Chilli, turmeric and ginger are great for combatting a cold and boosting immunity, so a craving for curry could indicate that you’re feeling a little under the weather.

You’re craving: Doughnuts

You need… more sleep

An urge for 'quick fix' sugary treats, such as cakes and biscuits, can be a sign your blood-glucose levels are low. People who skip breakfast are more likely to be obese and have larger waists.

*2017 Bluebella study – average UK woman now has a 34 ins waist compared to 28ins in 1957.

Lauren is the former Deputy Digital Editor at woman&home and became a journalist mainly because she enjoys being nosy. With a background in features journalism, Lauren worked on the woman&home brand for four years before going freelance. Before woman&home Lauren worked across a variety of women's lifestyle titles, including GoodTo, Woman's Own, and Woman magazine.