Top psychology strategy for busting emotional eating habits

We don’t usually do emotional eating alone. Yes, I said “we”.

We like company. But preferably not human company. We prefer the electronic kind: TV, films, even the computer will do.

You know the kind of emotional eating I’m talking about. The kind where we’re mindlessly eating bowls or bags of chips, ice cream and chocolate in front of the telly. The kind where we get to the bottom of the bag and wonder who ate all our chips.

My guilty pleasure is the same as Oprah’s

I love chips and dip. I’m in excellent company – Oprah also loves chips. A friend’s guilty pleasure is ‘light butter popcorn’ (gotta love that branding). I’ve heard raw cookie dough is a thing.

I’m yet to hear anyone say their choice of comfort food is tofu or quinoa salad.

Yup. Salt. Sugar. Fat.

The electronic company plus comfort food appears to be a stress reducer… in the short term that is. Until the extra kilos cause us more stress… that we need to soothe with comfort food in front of the telly. Ad infinitum…

There are several approaches to busting emotional eating, including – and especially – resolving stress at source, but there is one super quick and easy strategy and that is – not to eat our comfort food in front of the TV!

Forbidden foods are forbidden

Note I merely suggest not combining comfort foods with electronic company. I didn’t say we can’t have our guilty pleasures. To explain why, I’m going to ask you not to do something.

Don’t think of a white bear.


A key part of this strategy’s effectiveness is ‘no forbidden foods’. This is because it’s almost impossible not to think about something you don’t want to think about.

You’ve probably heard of ‘ironic processes’ or the ‘white bear effect‘, but the basic gist is ‘thought suppression’ doesn’t work. If anything, it often worsens the situation with intrusive thoughts and rebound effects – especially when we’re stressed.

So having forbidden foods is doing it the hard way and probably won’t work.

I can hear forbidden chips calling me through a lead door at 50 paces so I don’t usually have chips in the house for this reason. And while that’s a good strategy in its own right, our determination to numb our uncomfortable emotions with food is impressive. If our guilty pleasures aren’t available, almost any food will do. You know what I’m talking about.

Don’t be that selfish lover

So if you must – have your guilty pleasure. But make it solo guilt.

Even better, make it solo pleasure. Eat the comfort food without distraction. Practice mindful eating instead of mindless eating.

Dare to savor! Try really enjoying your guilty pleasure. Turn the tables for once and really give your comfort food some love.

It may feel weird at first eating comfort food without guilt, let alone actually noticing and enjoying it, rather than inhaling it untasted, but you’ll quickly adjust.

I’m not saying you have to eat your comfort food (although the reverse psychology may be useful if you are as resistant to authority as I am) but this simple strategy is an effective method of breaking the habit of mindless emotional eating.

Taking the fun out of comfort food

I tried this once. I ate a bowl of chips while sitting on the back deck. I seasoned the chips with the blue sky, emerald trees and flight paths of native birds. It was the most boring bowl of chips I’ve ever eaten.

It may also have been my last bowl of chips – I can’t remember.

But, never mind the native birds, I have gotten into the habit of savoring my strong, hot, creamy coffee without distraction. And that has enhanced the experience of the precious elixir and made it easier to resist having more cups than is good for my sleep.

The simple mental act of not turning an innocent guilty pleasure into an almost irresistible forbidden pleasure, can dramatically reduce the allure of our comfort foods.

Making it even easier

There is something else we can do to make even easier to watch TV without our guilty pleasures. And that is to substitute the less-healthy foods for something else – something healthier.

Substitution helps – a lot. Doing something is easier than doing nothing.

And the substitute doesn’t need to be food. I have a theory that part of the comfort of comfort food is the repetitive motion of our hands cycling between bowl and mouth – in the same way stressed zoo animals pace back and forth to discharge stress.

Us humans may not pace, but we’ll comfort eat, fidget, fiddle, twirl, or jiggle. We can even – at the more distressing end of the spectrum – develop habits such as hair pulling or trichotillomania.

So while the substitute could be a healthier food or drink – I found drinking green tea instead of G & T made it easier to cut back on alcohol – it doesn’t need to be. You could also do something non-foodie with your hands.

Keep those hands busy

Knitting is making a resurgence, especially with men. I kid you not. Apparently men invented knitting in the first place. Those fishing nets didn’t knit themselves, you know.

Other hand-occupying ideas you could employ to keep those digits busy include squeezing a stressball, playing cards, drawing or coloring in. You’re creative. You’ll think of lots of digital manipulations.

So, if you’re ready to ease back on the comfort eating, try the two simple steps:

  1. Have your guilty pleasure if you must, but eat it solo and show it some love
  2. Substitute a healthier food or drink to consume with your electronic companion OR occupy your hands with something else

This strategy – no forbidden stuff + substitution – isn’t just for emotional eating habits. It makes breaking a variety of less-than-healthy habits, such as smoking and drinking, much easier.

I’d love to read about your ideas or experiences with breaking emotional eating habits in the comments below. Your comments will inspire others.

Take excellent care of you.



Click here to subscribe: This is the first in a series of articles on the steps to rapidly and easily change lifestyle habits – including healthier eating, exercise, and even procrastination. None of this ‘willpower’ or ’21 days’ rubbish here (deep breaths, Rebecca, deep breaths) So subscribe here to ensure you don’t miss out. I also share the psychology tools I developed to take myself from university dropout to Ph.D., and riff on topics I hope will contribute to happier, healthier humans.

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Further Reading:

1 minute psychology: There’s no such thing as laziness – people hate this, but it’s true.

“You can’t do it!” – How to tell when your inner critic is lying through its teeth – I wish everyone would get a Ph.D., or achieve their ideal weight, or get a trophy girlfriend or boyfriend, or make a gazillion dollars, because then we will get it that these ‘achievements’ cannot fix us. We need a completely different type of glue.

  1. natalie

    omg you are really great. I have been reading your Web page half the day and love what you write about. you are funny and seem so cool.

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