Learn to make mindful food choices and regain control over what you eat with Dr Romi Ran’s five tips to help you put a stop to comfort eating once and for all.

Recognise emotional hunger vs physical hunger

The journey begins by learning to differentiate emotional hunger from physical hunger. Emotional hunger is a reactive urge to eat, driven more by feelings than by a true physiological need. It’s often likened to an itch that urgently needs to be scratched. This kind of hunger is usually immediate and intense, leading to cravings for specific comfort foods such as sweets, fatty foods, or those that we typically try to limit.

Emotional eating can also take a more calculated, obsessive form, where considerable time is spent fixating on foods, often accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame. Yet, when finally indulging in these foods, the eating experience often becomes dissociative, lacking conscious engagement in the eating process.

In contrast, physical hunger develops gradually, changing and intensifying over time. It presents clear physical signals like a rumbling stomach or a mouth salivating, as well as mental cues such as thoughts about food or a diminishing focus on tasks. Although there might be a preference for certain foods, physical hunger is usually satisfied with a range of food options.

Eating in response to physical hunger, particularly when not overly hungry, is often a pleasant and mindful experience, with significant attention paid to the entire process of eating. Recognising the difference between these two types of hunger is essential in regaining control over your eating habits.

How to Implement:

• Cultivate an awareness of your hunger by checking in with yourself multiple times throughout the day. Ask yourself if you are truly hungry, noting any physical or mental signs you observe. If you’re unsure, it’s okay to wait a bit. Genuine hunger becomes more distinct with time, aiding in developing greater awareness.

If you find yourself completely disconnected from the sensation of hunger, as a temporary measure, try eating every 3 hours for 3-4 days. This short-term intervention is designed to reawaken your hunger cues. Once you start recognising these cues, use this experience to reconnect with your body’s renewed hunger signals, moving away from rigidly timed eating.

• Take time to develop your hunger scale. i.e. a scale ranging from 0-5, where 5 is a neutral feeling and 0 represents extreme hunger. This scale will help you become attuned to your specific hunger signs and their associated intensity levels.

Pay attention to what each level on your hunger scale feels like. For some, a growling stomach might signal the onset of hunger (around level 4), while others may only experience this when they’re extremely hungry. It’s important to understand and trust your body’s unique responses, as everyone’s experience with hunger is different.

Develop mindful eating practices

Mindful eating is about consciously engaging with the eating experience. It’s a valuable approach for truly appreciating the pleasure and nourishment that food provides, as well as for tuning in to your body’s cues of hunger and fullness. This practice transforms eating from a mindless activity into a deliberate and enjoyable one.

Research suggests that when we genuinely focus on our food, we often find that we need less to feel satisfied, reach satiety more quickly, and enjoy the eating experience more. This mindful approach can be particularly effective in curbing emotional eating, as it encourages a heightened awareness of the reasons behind our food choices and fosters a healthier, more controlled relationship with food. However, embracing mindful eating may involve making some changes to your usual dining environment to support this focused approach.

How to Implement:

• Create a tranquil eating environment. This means no music, minimal talking, and reducing other forms of noise. Remove distractions and sit at a table to eat. If family dynamics or personal discomfort make this challenging, start with small steps. Try it for one meal a day to gradually integrate the practice.

• Engage all your senses during meals. Take note of your food’s colour, aroma, texture and flavour. This multi-sensory approach can enrich the experience and deepen your appreciation of the food.

• Pause periodically to evaluate not just your fullness, but also your emotional state. Ask yourself, “Am I continuing to eat because I’m still hungry, or am I trying to soothe an emotion?” This conscious check-in helps to differentiate between physical hunger and emotional eating. By recognising if emotions are driving your desire to eat, you can take steps to address these feelings in healthier ways, directly tackling the root of emotional eating.

Seek fulfilment in food-free activities

Breaking the cycle of emotional eating is essential, and a key strategy is to find joy and satisfaction in activities that don’t revolve around food. Immersing yourself in fulfilling hobbies or social activities can provide emotional satisfaction and reduce your dependence on food for comfort.

How to Implement:

• Make a list of activities that you enjoy or have always wanted to try. Set aside dedicated time each week to engage in these activities, allowing yourself to fully immerse in and enjoy them. You could even try one of these fun exercises if getting fit is one of your goals!

• Focus on building social connections that are positive and supportive. Engaging in social activities fosters a sense of community and helps to alleviate feelings of loneliness, which are often triggers for emotional eating.

• Engage in acts of kindness and help others. Evidence suggests that compassion and altruism towards others can enhance our own wellbeing. Whether it’s small acts of kindness in your daily life or more organised efforts like community service, helping others can offer a deep sense of purpose and fulfilment, offering emotional rewards that comfort eating can’t match.

Address the underlying emotions

Emotional eating is often a coping mechanism for unresolved feelings. Identifying and addressing these emotions is a crucial step in breaking the cycle of using food for comfort.

How to Implement:

• Consider the factors in your life that contribute to emotional eating, such as stress, lack of sleep and physical inactivity. Actively look to change what you can, whether it’s distancing yourself from certain stressful relationships or re-evaluating stressful aspects of your work. Adding practices like meditation, alongside enjoyable physical activities like dancing or hiking, can also be highly beneficial (or try one of these 5 ways to reduce stress!). These combined efforts aid in managing emotions and improving mood, reducing the tendency to turn to food.

• Don’t underestimate the power of support. Sometimes, discussing your feelings with family or a friend can be more fulfilling than any food. And for complex emotional eating issues, prioritise professional help like therapy, which can provide specialised guidance for effective behaviour change and emotional wellbeing.

• Writing down your feelings can help you process emotions and understand patterns in your emotional eating. This practice offers insights into your comfort-eating triggers and helps Practice self-compassion and forgiveness

Practice self-compassion and forgiveness

Embarking on the journey to change long-standing eating habits is challenging and requires both patience and self-compassion. It’s essential to treat yourself with kindness and understanding during this process, as these are key components of lasting change.

How to Implement:

• Recognise that the aim is not perfection but progress. Be patient with yourself and take the time to celebrate even the smallest of achievements.

• In moments where you might slip up, shift from self-criticism to self-reflection. Ask yourself what you can learn from the experience and how it can contribute to your growth.

• Understand your reasons for the behaviour. Recognise that sometimes, food can seem like the easiest, cheapest, fastest solution for self-soothing. If you find yourself at the end of a bag of crisps or with a spoon in a chocolate cake, don’t give in to despair. Instead, acknowledge the reason behind your action. Understanding why you’re turning to food is the first step in addressing and altering this behaviour.

Quitting comfort eating and making more mindful food choices is a comprehensive journey that requires understanding, patience and practice. These five detailed tips offer a roadmap to help you regain control over your eating habits. By understanding that each step is an opportunity to learn more about yourself and make positive changes, this will lead to a healthier and more fulfilling lifestyle.

Remember, the road to change is often gradual, but every step forward is a move towards a more balanced and peaceful relationship with food and yourself. By incorporating these strategies into your daily life, you’ll create lasting changes that go beyond your eating habits and have a positive impact on your overall quality of life.

Dr. Romi Ran is a clinical psychologist specialising in working with people with food, eating and body image issues. She is the author of Bite Sized Peace: Change How You Eat, Accept Your Body, Transform Your Life (£13.99, OM RR LLC). To find out more about her work, visit drromiran.com.

Words: Dr Romi Ran. Images: Shutterstock.