How to Give up the Toxic Cycle of Stress and Emotional Eating

It’s easy to eat unhealthily when we are stressed and emotional, we feel the need to fill in a missing void and eating seems to do the perfect job. Clinical Nutritionist, Jessica Sepel shares how you can give up toxic cycle of stress and emotional eating and even allowing yourself to indulge every so often.

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Here’s the truth: my relationship with food wasn’t always a positive one. For a period of my life, I was an emotional eater and a fad dieter. I counted calories, restricted my food intake, obsessed over my meals and binge ate when it all become too much. This led to a never-ending circle of deprivation, bingeing and punishment. It’s taken me years to recognise this problem and transform my lifestyle.

From personal and clinical experience, binge is caused by a range of emotions. When we’re angry, sad or stressed, it’s all too easy to turn to food for comfort. When emotional eating is based on deprivation, the result can often be binge eating which gives birth to a vicious cycle. Breaking this cycle requires a lot of motivation and dedication to understanding your behavioural cues. Here are some ways I was able to overcome my emotional eating.

1. Give up dieting and deprivation

When we restrict our food intake, our bodies enter starvation mode. In my clinical and personal experience, binge eating and emotional eating is a result of starvation. To end this vicious cycle, it’s essential to give up dieting once and for all. Try to start healing your relationship with food by becoming knowledgable about nutrition. It’s about treating your body with love and care. It’s about acknowledging how hard our bodies work for us. And it’s about making informed, conscious choices at mealtimes.

2. Eliminate judgement around food

The moment we tell ourselves, ‘I shouldn’t be eating this’ or ‘I should only eat that’, we begin to fixate on this idea of ‘should’ rather than giving ourselves permission to enjoy the food we feel like in that moment. Labelling foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can create stress and promote the emotional eating roller coaster. Instead, try to develop a mindful approach to food that will help bring joy, rather than guilt, to your meals.

3. Watch your stress levels

When we’re stressed we tend to feel out of control. In moments like these, we can turn to food, which we feel like we can control. When met with a stressful situation, I take three big belly breaths and try to centre myself. I also make sure I separate stress triggers and food, which may include reading my emails, scrolling through social media or watching TV. Another important factor to consider is getting enough sleep. Sleep has been shown to moderate our stress response, so making sure you receive at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night is recommended. I also like to switch my phone off later in the evening so I have time to wind down, allowing for a truly restful sleep.

4. Adopt the 80/20 approach

Health is all about balance; there’s no such thing as the ‘perfect’ diet, so please release that pressure from yourself. Every day, I choose to eat an abundance of nutrient-rich wholefoods that make me feel good. When your diet mainly comprises of wholefoods such as organic protein, a variety of vegetables, nuts, legumes, seeds, leafy greens and low-sugar fruits, you’re nourished on a cellular level and have the ability to make kinder, more conscious choices when it comes to food.

I aim to eat this way 80 per cent of the time. For the remaining 20 per cent, I eat without guilt. If I’m out for dinner, I’ll share a dessert with my friends and when I’m travelling, I’ll enjoy a croissant with Nutella and my favourite hazelnut gelato. It’s also important to give yourself permission to indulge without guilt. Life is meant to be enjoyed, so know that your body is strong enough to metabolise a treat from time to time. It’s possible to enjoy delicious snacks and treats.

5. Show yourself some love

It’s okay to make time for yourself. In fact, if you’re struggling with negative body image or disordered eating, it’s essential. Take some time to nourish yourself on a deeper level. Try to meditate for 10 minutes, head to a restorative yoga class, take yourself outside for a walk in nature or run yourself a bath with Epsom salts and lavender oil. These practices are powerful ways to calm the sympathetic nervous system and lower cortisol and adrenalin in the body. 

6. Investigate the root cause

In order to free yourself from the toxic cycle of emotional eating, it’s important to consider the behavioural issues that lead to this in the first place. Are you hungry for food, or are you in need of something more? Perhaps it’s emotional support, stability or investigating deeper pain. If you’re struggling with deeper, underlying issues, I recommend getting help from a qualified expert who’s trained in this field.


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