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Are You an Emotional Eater?

You cook healthy meals for your family on a regular basis, meal prepping with the best of them. But when things in your life get crazy—you have a giant presentation for work, your kid needs a costume for a play, or you’re having an argument with your sister—you find yourself polishing off extra cookies or a pint of fro-yo. Sound familiar? Research has established a relationship between stress and emotional eating, and some studies have even confirmed that people do tend to reach for more high-fat, less healthy foods in these situations. One study suggested emotional eating may happen because when people are stressed, they stop being as responsive to their internal cues of hunger and satiety (aka eating when you’re not even hungry).

“The rush of adrenaline during these moments when you’re feeling stressed causes a whirlwind of biological events to occur. Blood sugar is raised, and digestion is slowed. If you cope with stress through emotional eating, this is where your body works against you,” says nutritionist Lisa Bruno, MS, RDN from Work It Out in Hoboken, New Jersey. Follow these cues next time you’re stressed.

Do a literal gut check: “We flock to food when we want to celebrate or relax, to make us feel better or even feel numb during times of distress,” says nutritionist Ilyse Schapiro, co-author of Should I Scoop Out My Bagel? Take a moment to check in with your stomach: Are you eating because you’re bored or sad, or are you physically hungry? If you’re still not sure…

Wait another 15 minutes: When you’re fighting with your significant other, you usually know that stepping away from the situation for a few minutes helps both of you come back together with a clearer head. When you want to finish off that bag of pistachios, try the same tactic, Schapiro says. “Distract yourself from the food you want to eat—this will give you the time to determine what’s really going on and whether you’re bored or actually hungry,” she says. Set an alarm on your phone and do something else to busy yourself: Fold a load of laundry, reply to some emails, or take a walk. If the craving doesn’t go away after 15 minutes, allow yourself a small, healthy snack.

Take a break: Using food to cope with stress means you’re not acknowledging your feelings and learning how to deal with them. “You need to take a breather—close your eyes and think about what’s making you want to reach for food,” Bruno says. “Ask yourself, ‘What am I feeling?’ and write down two ways you can deal with those feelings,” she says.

Cut back on visual cues: It’s easy for the kitchen to become a gathering place in your home, but try to limit your time spent in it to food-specific tasks. "Let your kitchen table be for eating, not working,” Bruno says. “By sitting at the kitchen table, it can lend visual cues to your brain to start thinking about food.” Set up a small desk in another part of your home for tasks like paying your bills or working from home, where you’re not a hand’s length away from grabbing a treat you’re not hungry for.

Eat a substitute food: "Cravings are tricky. Your brain will crave what it wants to crave. You can try and satiate that craving by swapping in a different food, similar in style but much more healthy,” Bruno says. If you’re dying for something crunchy and salty, go for something like air-popped popcorn flavored with chili powder instead of chips. If you must have a specific comfort food, Bruno says to honor your body and mind, but only indulge with a small serving: Think just a handful of potato chips or one square of dark chocolate—and be mindful, take your time, and enjoy eating it.

Get more great health and wellness stories at EatingWell.com/Strive.