Conquer Your Cravings

Feelings can fuel our food choices, which may see us indulging in unhealthy options. Here’s how to remove emotions from the equation.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Feelings can fuel our food choices, which may see us indulging in unhealthy options. Here’s how to remove emotions from the equation.

What if we told you that it’s not a lack of willpower that’s causing you to reach for unhealthy foods, but a mental imbalance in your life? To regrain balance, you need to uncover and fix these emotional habits.

We’re all guilty of succumbing to a less-than-healthy treat every now and then. After all, there’s a reason for the phrase ‘comfort food’. But, if you regularly respond to life’s ups and downs by turning to ice cream or a bottle of wine, it could mean that you’re putting your head in the sand(wich) when it comes to your emotions.

“Emotional eating affects so many of us,” says Mel Wells, health and eating psychology coach and author of Hungry For More. “I’m fascinated by what leads us to do this. We think it’s our body telling us to eat, but often it’s our mind creating cravings, and telling us to avoid something that makes us feel uncomfortable or sad.”

Mel’s philosophy is that unhealthy eating habits are a symptom of a problem elsewhere; you need to explore to identify what it is you’re using food to replace or avoid.

Tune Into You

There are times in your life when you’ll eat even though you’re not hungry, but it’s worth tuning in to the reason if you’re regularly overeating.

Emotional eating has been linked to weight gain, binge eating and low self-esteem in various studies, and it can be caused by a range of feelings. Stress, in particular, is linked to a change in eating patterns, and a greater tendency to eat high-fat, high-sugar foods, according to one American study. Exhaustion is often a factor too – the reward centres of the brain in sleep-deprived people are much more likely to react to photos of unhealthy food than in those who are well-rested, says a study from Columbia University.

“As humans, we instinctively want to move away from pain and towards pleasure,” says Mel. “Food is one of the things we engage with the most in day-to-day life – it’s an easy pleasure to indulge in.”

The good news is that once you’re ready to tackle these behaviours, it’s entirely possible for change. After all, Mel, who struggled with disordered eating, including bulimia and extreme diets for many years, did it herself, and subsequently with countless clients. However, there’s no quick fix.

It may be that, as a child, you learned from your family that food makes you feel better. A 2010 study found that preschool children whose mothers eat emotionally consume more snacks than other children. These may be habits you’ve had for many years, and will take time to unlearn. There’s nothing wrong with emotional eating in itself. Still, if it’s a pattern that’s causing you pain, and you want to get to the root of it rather than trying yet another diet, you need to get curious about yourself. 

Why Are You Hungry?

Start to observe the patterns around your eating habits, and you’ll unearth some clues. If you’re wolfing down chocolate every day during your lunch break without really tasting it, perhaps you’re feeling stressed about your job. Perhaps you’re turning to wine every evening because you’re arguing a lot with your partner, and wine relaxes you. You might reach for chips when you feel lonely because you don’t see your friends enough, or munch on biscuits when you’re frustrated and trying to solve a knotty problem. 

“It’s not a case of needing more willpower, even though that’s what we’re constantly taught,” says Mel. “It’s about addressing a particular area or areas in your life where you are not feeling fulfilled. It’s the romantic relationship, family issue or job that needs to change.” Change your relationship with life, and your relationship with food will naturally change for the better.

Be kind to yourself when observing these behaviours. A US study found that when women were given doughnuts to taste test, those who were given a lesson in self-compassion beforehand ended up eating less. So, don’t judge yourself for your eating habits – you’re trying to learn from them. 

Making Changes

When you start to examine the feelings behind your eating, you might discover that when you allow yourself to feel and embrace your emotions – whether by having a good cry or talking to a loved one – you can come out of that feeling whole again without eating unnecessarily. Or it could be that you’re eating out of boredom and need to inject some fun back into your life by trying a hobby or going out with friends. It could even be that your life is too full because you’re caring for others, and by carving out some regular time for yourself, your eating habits will start to calm down.

Whether it’s finding a purpose that makes your heart sing, expressing your creative side, exploring spirituality, or just experiencing more joy, identifying ‘the gap’ that you’re filling with food can make your life happier and richer.

“We often look to food to heal us,” says Mel. “But things that can heal and make us happy include love, relationships, fun, creativity and a sense of belonging.” Identifying which areas of your life are out of balance is a challenging but rewarding journey that can help put emotional eating at the bottom of your priorities. 

Emotional Hunger

• Comes on suddenly – in contrast to physical hunger, which tends to be more gradual.

• Involves cravings for specific foods, whereas physical hunger can be satisfied with various things.

• Is never satiated – you won’t feel full even when your stomach is.

• Often results in mindless, fast eating without actually tasting the food.

My Reading Room


Becoming more aware of the feelings that drive you to eat will help you overcome habitual eating. Start observing yourself gently to identify your habits. Health and eating psychology coach Mel Wells suggests:

1 Write down what you feel when you turn to food – it may be one thing or several. Ask yourself, ‘Am I feeling this craving in my body or in my mind?’

2 Try to trace back to what caused the feeling, whether it is boredom at work, arguing with a friend, or something else.

3 Ask yourself, ‘Is there a way that I can treat what’s at the root of this feeling? It could be something small, like going for a walk, calling a friend, or spending five minutes daydreaming.