How to Use Mindfulness Meditation to Overcome Emotional Eating
Science confirms the surprising result of my mindfulness meditation practice — it can be a powerful tool for getting a more rational relationship with the food you eat
As a teenager, I struggled with bulimia. Not only did I eat to manage my emotional states, but I also binged and then tried to compensate for my dietary transgressions. This never-ending cycle was so draining that I could not think of anything else but food.
Stopping binge eating required a shift in my beliefs about my worthiness and my ability to cope with stressful situations. I used food to suppress three negative emotions in particular: powerlessness, anxiety, and emptiness. Fortunately, with the assistance of a psychiatrist who helped me change some aspects of my negative and restrictive mindset, I beat bulimia. This was a turning point in my life.
I made remarkable improvements. But emotions such as loneliness, boredom, unhappiness and even excitement still triggered my appetite. I still made bad choices for my mental and physical wellbeing and was prone to emotional overeating. I still used food to avoid unpleasant emotions.
Ultimately, however, the real solution to overcoming emotional eating is not to avoid but to accept a variety of emotions, including negative ones, because they are a healthy part of life.
So how did I finally break my emotional eating habits?
With mindfulness meditation.
I didn’t start mindfulness meditation with the idea that it would help my emotional eating. As a life and health coach, I was so passionate about self-development that I could not refrain from experimenting with mindfulness.
Little did I know that mindfulness meditation would help me embrace whatever emotion arose without using food or anything else to suffocate it.
In this article, I’ll share the science about why this approach worked for me, tell you about my mindfulness meditation practice and get you started on your own practice.
Mindfulness meditation will not cure an eating disorder. For that, you should seek professional help for a complete program of care. But mindfulness practices can be extremely beneficial to anyone who wants to change their food habits by examining some of the underlying sensations that can lead to emotional eating.
The Science of Mindfulness Meditation for Overcoming Emotional Eating
After I realized that mindfulness meditation was unexpectedly helpful in dealing with issues around eating, I started looking at the research behind it. What I found was that academic research does support the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation, and that there are several explanations for why it works.
A systematic review published in Eating Behaviors in 2014 by Katterman et al. confirms that mindfulness meditation can help individuals scale down emotional eating and decrease binge eating episodes. Mindfulness practices are being integrated with existing therapeutic models, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Why is mindfulness so efficacious? There may be several explanations.
- Many people suffering from eating disorders such as binge eating or emotional eating experience guilt and shame after episodes of compulsive eating, not to mention self-esteem issues. These negative judgmental feelings trigger the continuance of the eating patterns in what can feel like an endless self-perpetuating loop. Mindfulness meditation, however, promotes a nonjudgmental observation of reality. A nonjudgmental (and even compassionate) mindset helps people embrace a variety of emotions, including negative feelings, without actively trying to suppress or change them with food.
- Mindfulness is a great tool to acknowledge behaviors that are otherwise automatic. When emotional eaters repeatedly use food to cope with emotions, the reward centers in their brain are stimulated through an increase in dopamine. The memory of the reward is also reinforced multiple times, leading to the creation of a habitual behavior. This pattern is especially pronounced when it involves highly palatable foods that are loaded with sugar, salt, and fat—foods that compromise appetite regulation. Once the habit is created, emotional eating becomes automatic. Mindfulness is a powerful ally in the fight to break this cycle and bring awareness back into the equation. When an event triggers an emotion, emotional eaters, instead of eating rewarding foods on autopilot, can learn to stop, observe the situation, and choose to react in a different way.
- Mindfulness of bodily sensations can help emotional eaters recognize cues of hunger and satiety, making it easier for them to recognize immediately when they are about to eat for reasons that are not related to their physical hunger. In addition, mindful and slow-eating exercises can help break the cycle of “reaction” eating triggered by stress or nervousness. (This can also have benefits for people who want to work toward weight loss, because slow eating gives the body those 20 minutes it needs to send the satiety signal to the brain, making it easier for the person to not overeat.)
- According to Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, meditation strengthens the functions of our prefrontal cortex. This frontal and rational part of the brain, which is engaged when you resist urges that arise, is our willpower house. Emotional eaters frequently battle with the urge to eat when they are not physically hungry. By developing the prefrontal cortex, anyone can get better at observing their impulses without acting on them. The prefrontal cortex is a wonderful ally in shifting unwanted habits and building desired ones.
Sally’s Story: A Case Study
In my research, I found one case study that resonated with me in particular because of its similarities to my own experiences. This was the story of Sally, a binge eater and participant in the study described in “Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Applied to Binge Eating: A Case Study.”
Emotional eaters do not necessarily binge, but, just like binge eaters, they feel the urge to reach for food when they are not physically hungry. Binge eaters can be emotional eaters, but their eating episodes are specifically characterized by the consumption of huge amounts of food in a relatively short time frame. Both behaviors—emotional eating and binge eating—represent forms of compulsive eating.
Sally’s treatment consisted of several group sessions during which she and other members engaged in mindfulness exercises such as meditation, body scanning (focusing on several parts of the body, one at a time), mindful eating, mindful walking, and mindful stretching. The treatment also focused on helping participants develop the ability to observe thoughts and emotions without having the urge to eliminate or change them. In addition, the patients were encouraged to identify and dedicate time to activities they enjoyed while decreasing activities associated with negative thoughts and feelings.
The results? Sally saw a steady decline in the number of objective binges — defined as episodes during which a person eats an objectively large amount of food in a relatively short time —she experienced throughout the treatment. She experienced three objective binges during the first four weeks of the program, two throughout the second month and none during the last four weeks. Follow-up assessments revealed that these amazing results lasted.
Although the number of subjective binges—defined as episodes during which an individual perceives the eating as a binge but the quantity of food eaten is a normal portion — increased during the treatment, six-month follow-up evaluations showed an absence of subjective binges and no more preoccupation with weight. It is also important to mention other main findings of these assessments: Sally scored higher on a measure of her “Nonjudgmental Acceptance” of internal experiences, and her belief that “eating leads to feeling out of control” decreased.
The increase in subjective binges during the treatment may appear to be a negative outcome, but they indicate a positive change in Sally. As the academic paper explained:
“As she became more able to discriminate hunger from other sensations, she began to label as a binge any eating episode that occurred in response to sensations other than hunger, regardless of the quantity eaten.”
Sally had learned to distinguish real hunger from emotional hunger.
How I Started With Mindfulness Meditation
Below is a step-by-step plan to get you started. This is what my own experience looked like.
For me, meditation consisted of observing my breath, physical sensations, thoughts and emotions without any judgment.
The first step was to notice how the air entered and exited my nose, filling up and emptying my lungs. Then I paid attention to my body—whether it was tense, cold or warm.
Next, I would observe my thoughts and categorize them without criticizing their validity or fairness. For instance, if I thought, “My husband did not listen to me yesterday,” I would recognize it as a thought about the past without pondering whether my statement was right or wrong.
Finally, I noticed my emotions and allowed them to pass through me like clouds in the sky, without trying to suppress them or label them as good or bad in any way.
After concluding this mindfulness round, I would concentrate on noticing external sounds, such as dogs barking, the wind blowing or cars beeping.
Every morning, I would find a comfortable position and dedicate at least five minutes to this exercise. Gradually, I increased the duration of my mindfulness sessions up to 20 minutes. I even experienced a 30-minute meditation once, when I spent a night at a Japanese temple where monks teach Ajikan meditation.
No More Emotional Eating
Very soon, I started reaping the benefits of my consistent mindfulness practice. Not only did I learn to live more in the present moment and be grateful for everything I have, but I also became more aware of my thinking and behavioral patterns in a way that went beyond any expectation.
I began to notice how I chose unhealthy treats over pieces of fruit only for taste and convenience, and how I used food to soothe my soul when I felt powerless, stressed out or anxious about something.
The beautiful part is that I did not get angry at myself for having these habits. I felt only compassion, simply admitting that I had developed unhelpful coping mechanisms over time. I became more objective and less judgmental toward myself and others. This fresh attitude shifted my behaviors effectively and gave my rational mind a chance to be involved in the urge to eat and the decision to eat or not.
Now I view food as nourishment, not as a drug. I can confidently say that I have learned to make better choices for myself. Among the other positive side effects of mindfulness meditation, I also noticed better sleep, improved problem-solving skills, more creativity and an overall sense of contentment.
Despite being a great tool to beat emotional eating, mindfulness meditation, it is important to stress, does not replace a holistic approach, which may include cognitive behavioral therapy and a good dose of inner work, both of which helped me recover from bulimia and cleared the way toward a long-term healthy relationship with food.
How to Develop Your Own Mindfulness Meditation Practice
If you are prone to emotional eating, I hope you are motivated to give mindfulness meditation a try.
There are some key points that you may want to consider to increase the likelihood of success in enjoying your mindfulness meditation practice.
1. Start Small
Many of us think it is productive to set ambitious goals, like meditating for one hour a day. However, I suggest you start small and gradually increase the amount of time you meditate.
Five minutes a day is an excellent target for beginners. Why?
First, when we add new habits into our routine at a reasonable pace, we create momentum and are more likely to follow through.
Second, many of us are turned off by big objectives because we already feel overwhelmed by our daily obligations.
Do not be tempted to push yourself too hard and accept that even a few minutes of meditation each day are enough to make tangible progress. The point is to opt for consistency over quantity. Start small.
2. Choose a Peaceful Place and a Comfortable Position
You can practice mindfulness in any situation simply by using your five senses to observe yourself and the world around you. Nevertheless, when you are just getting started with your practice, it’s helpful to find a peaceful environment to meditate so you can avoid interruptions.
One of the best ways to create optimal conditions is to wake up early in the morning and meditate while everyone else is asleep.
Most people prefer to sit, as they tend to fall asleep during meditation if they lie on their couch or bed. Avoid poor posture, which creates physical tension and even mental stress, and sit comfortably. Your body should not hurt. Simply keep your back straight to stay awake.
There is no need to force yourself to sit in a lotus position. Sitting on a chair works just fine!
3. Meditate at the Same Time Every Day
You need to find that time of the day when you can meditate without distractions and stick to it. There is a reason for this.
Any habit is made up of a trigger, an action, and a reward. A trigger is something that reminds you of and leads you to an action. For example, if you meditate every day at 7 a.m., your brain will associate that time with the act of meditating. In other words, 7 a.m. itself can trigger you to meditate. Chances are, though, that whatever you normally do before meditation in your morning routine will act as a trigger as well.
The meditation practice can often be its own reward, as you know it will give you benefits. But you might also celebrate your decision to stick with your meditation practice and give yourself a private “high five” for doing so.
If you meditate at different times every day, you will lose the opportunity to use a specific time as a trigger to build your meditation habit. Life happens, which means that sometimes you may not be able to meditate at the time you have set for yourself. In this case, do not skip your practice; meditate later in the day when it is possible to do so. Just do your best!
4. Set a Timer
The purpose of setting a timer when you start meditating is to prevent yourself from worrying about how long you have been meditating while you are meditating.
If you don’t set a timer, you may feel tempted to check the clock during your practice. In contrast, setting one will allow you to track your progress with the duration of your meditations. As a beginner, I meditated for 5 minutes. Soon those 5 minutes became 10. Then 15. Next, 15 turned into 20. I would not have been aware of such progress had I not relied on a timer.
Seeing growth in your mindfulness meditation practice by increasing the duration of your meditation sessions can be rewarding. It is important to build momentum!
5. Don’t Try to Control Your Breath
Deep diaphragmatic breathing is ideal to turn off the fight-or-flight response and relax. Dedicating some time to learning how to breathe like this can help you reduce stress, stress eating, and emotional eating.
However, when you meditate there is no obligation to control the way you are breathing. All you need to do is to observe it objectively.
Feel how the air enters your body, moves inside it and then exits it. Which part of your lungs does it fill up? Is it the bottom or the upper part? Does it fill it up quickly or slowly? Is the air cold or warm?
Observe as many details as you can without attaching judgment to any of it.
6. Embrace the Fact that Your Mind Will Wander
The purpose of meditation is not to stop thinking but to increase awareness and presence.
Therefore, when your mind starts to wander, which is totally normal and predictable, be curious and pay attention to your stream of consciousness as if it were being broadcast on television. There is no need to turn that off.
When you are done observing your thoughts, go back to focus on your breath or whatever object of attention you have chosen. If you can do this even only once during your meditation, rest assured it was a productive session, no matter how crazy your mind went. Whatever happens during your meditation is perfect as it is.
Noticing that your mind has wandered and dropping your thought tangents to refocus on the here and now is the real activity of meditating. That is to say: if you notice your mind wandering, you’re doing it right.
7. If You Struggle, Consider Guided Meditations
When you are a beginner, you might feel uncertain and catch yourself regularly worrying about what you should be doing.
In that case, guided meditations can be quite helpful. There are great apps and free resources all over the Internet. There are even meditation coaches who can guide you through the process on your phone. The point is not to give up if you struggle. Seek guidance and you shall find it.
8. Use Urges to Eat as Opportunities to Practice Mindfulness
If you are an emotional eater, you probably experience urges to eat when you are not hungry.
These urges are golden opportunities to practice mindfulness. As soon as you perceive an urge, try to stop for a second before acting on it straight away. Sit for a minute and observe the urge. Look at this urge as if a part of your brain were producing it automatically. This urge isn’t really what you want to do; it is just a byproduct of a habit.
Where do you feel the urge in your body? If there is a specific place, pay attention to that part of your body with curiosity. Is the urge making any statements? These statements may sound like this:
“I need to eat right now!”
“Screw it! I can eat whatever I want because yesterday I went to the gym.”
“If I don’t have that piece of cake, I’ll die!”
The only thing you need to do is to observe the urge’s thoughts. You do not need to judge them or fight them—just let them be. You might end up identifying with these statements, but remember that these are just pathways your brain has created over time. They are not objective ideas we can describe as right or wrong, so simply stay there and be an observer. When you do this, you use your prefrontal cortex, the rational part of your brain.
Now, let’s choose a metaphor to describe this activity. Observing urges to eat is like observing the sunset. The sky changes color from blue to red. Then, little by little, it transitions to night and everything becomes peaceful.
If you wait a while and the urge was simply due to a habit of handling unpleasant feelings (and not hunger), you will often find that the urge to eat fades away. If you don’t resist and act on an urge, don’t worry! You can always try this exercise again the next time. You can “fail” as many times as you want (though I would consider it succeeding, because you have become conscious of the real feelings at play).
Just do not give up; eventually you will find yourself making better choices. Be patient and compassionate with yourself!
9. Keep Your Expectations in Check
By now, you know mindfulness meditation has numerous benefits. Nevertheless, many people do not experience these benefits in the short term and therefore give up their meditation practice altogether, which is really a shame.
Mindfulness meditation is a lifelong commitment and brings amazing results when there is consistency. You wouldn’t go to the gym expecting to build muscle in a week, would you? You understand how meaningless that would be. The same goes for meditation. When you are aware of this and commit to your daily practice, you will experience its long-term advantages.
Remember that Sally in the case study above had no objective binges in week 4. Though I wasn’t tracking at the time and made the connection between emotional eating and mindfulness only after starting my meditation practice, my sense is that my experience was similar: it happened over the course of weeks.
If you asked me what factors have allowed me to improve my life, mindfulness meditation would be at the top of my list.
Not only did it help me overcome emotional eating, but it revolutionized the relationships I had with myself and others. I am a calmer and less judgmental human being, one who is more likely to think through an experience before pointing the finger at myself or other people. I feel more empathy and compassion than ever. Moreover, mindful eating boosted my self-esteem and my ability to manage stress and solve problems creatively. I can also say that I’m a happier person in general.
I hope this article inspires you to embark on a new journey that will lead you to a better quality of life. Remember that emotional eating does not have to control you.
It is not always bad to soothe yourself with food. It is good for the soul to enjoy a hot drink or a warm dish on a rainy day. It is delightful to feel positive emotions when you consume your Christmas meal with your family. All of this is fantastic when done mindfully and with a pinch of balance.
But when emotional eating leads you to go on automatic pilot and eat compulsively, or to compromise your wellbeing, it’s time to look at making a change. Mindfulness meditation was a powerful tool in addressing my own eating issues, and I hope you will find it a powerful tool as well.