The Top 5 Strategies I Use to Curb Emotional Eating (and Willpower Isn’t One of Them)

I struggled for years to stop binge eating.

My drug of choice was sweets, chocolate in particular.

I would try to have “just a few” M&Ms and scarf down the whole bag. I would steal my children’s Halloween candy and eat most of it. (“Mom . . . have you seen my candy?” “Nope, sure haven’t.”)

But most of the time my binges occurred as I passed by whatever was sweet that happened to be in my path when I was racing around, trying to get a million things done.

In other words, my emotional eating took the form of being a stress eater.

And whenever I lost control and binged, I shamed myself mercilessly and promised myself that I would stop doing it.

What is wrong with you?

Why can’t you just stop eating?

You just have no willpower.

I’m not going to eat any sweets tomorrow.

Then I finally — finally! — figured out how to break this habit (most of the time).

I finally realized that the secret was to stop trying to make myself not do it — and eliminate the need for willpower entirely.

How did I do this?

I stopped trying to change my behavior — and started managing my environment instead.

Environment Is Everything

We all know that willpower runs out. But the worst part is that when it does, we tend to blame ourselves for being weak or lazy or worthless.

So the key is to stop trying to force yourself to change your behavior and instead make it easy to keep from doing it.

Your environment is literally pushing you to do everything you do. Yet we fail to recognize the tremendous influence it has on our behaviors.

A fridge full of junk food, a counter full of snacks and sodas, and a cluttered-up kitchen — all of these cause you to take action . . . and not in a good way.

But your environment doesn’t just consist of what you see around you. It also includes your mental and emotional environment.

Things like boredom, loneliness, anger, and stress (that’s mine) are powerful triggers that lead to emotional eating.

And the things you say to yourself (your thoughts) have a massive effect on what you do.

The Invisible Hand

As habit-change guru James Clear says, “Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior.”

So let’s look at 5 ways you can manage all of these environments — mental, emotional, and physical — to drastically decrease your tendency to eat emotionally, no willpower required.

1. Be aware. What is prompting your binges? Is is boredom? Loneliness? Stress? Understanding what’s pushing you to eat emotionally helps you identify the trigger.

If you can’t see the origin point of your emotional eating, you can’t get to the source and fix anything. You have to have awareness to find solutions. Also, figuring out what’s actually causing you to binge helps you stop telling yourself the story that you binge because you’re “out of control” or “just can’t stop eating.”

2. Manage your triggers. This is the thing we miss most often, and it’s the most powerful solution because you’re getting to the source of the problem.

Take me, for example. The source of my binge eating was (is) stress. The two things that stress me out most are 1) not having crossed off the items on my to-do list and 2) a disorderly environment.

Therefore, I manage my triggers by getting up early and tackling my list when it’s quiet, ensuring that I feel accomplished before I jump into my day. And I do everything possible to keep my environment neat, clean, and organized. (It’s not much fun living will a Type A neat freak, as my kids will tell you, but it works for me.)

3. Manage your surroundings. Even if you’re not a de-cluttering squaring-everything-off psycho like me, it’s critical to take charge of your physical environment. Best of all, you can set it up to actually make decisions for you. (I have a free guide that will give you the step-by-step process to do it in your kitchen.)

Research clearly shows that inserting barriers decreases the chances of engaging in bad behaviors (putting junk food in a plastic container on a high shelf of a cabinet) and removing them helps you engage in the good ones (like putting a bowl of fruit on the counter to make sure you eat more of it).

I put sweets far out of sight — and for sure not left out in my path to grab as I’m passing by while on a stressful work call (my kitchen doubles as my office, conveniently ensuring that my two biggest stressors work in unison to throw me off course).

I make sure to set my environment up so that I don’t have to use willpower to try not to eat cookies lying out on the counter — because there aren’t any.

4. Manage your self-talk. Because my kitchen is also my office, things quickly get out of control as soon as my kids walk in. This is where managing my self-talk is absolutely critical.

My thoughts can quickly devolve into, “Why can’t they just clean up after themselves?” or “Why do I have to do everything around here?” I know that these thoughts are deadly to my ability to stick with my healthy habits, so I’ve learned how to spot them and redirect.

I now say things like, “Everything always gets done,” “Breathe,” and most especially, “Just walk away.”

5. Manage your reactions. On that note, when I’m feeling particularly stressed, I do just that: I leave the room. I go outside or upstairs or anywhere but the kitchen when it looks like a herd of hyenas tore through it. Even if I just turn around and take three seconds to regroup, sometimes that’s all I need.

If lighting a candle or getting Alexa to play your favorite song simultaneously blasts away your triggers (feeling sad, bored, or frustrated) and helps you manage your reactions, then do that! And, bonus, if doing it also snaps you out of negative self-talk, even better.

Do whatever you have to do to distance yourself from anything that’s pushing to you binge, no matter how silly or insignificant it seems — or regardless of how inconvenient or unsettling it is to anyone else. (If you have to leave the dinner table for a 2-minute break from the chaos, then by all means do.)

You Really Are in Control

The best part of these strategies is that they’re easy to put into place on their own, and in combination they are extremely powerful.

Also, eliminating the need for willpower is such a huge relief. Not only is it hard to summon — especially on days where you’re being pulled in a thousand directions — it inevitably results in you blaming and shaming yourself for not having enough of it when it runs out (and it always does).

You may not be able to completely eliminate your tendency to eat emotionally, but you can definitely manage it. And consistently taking small actions over time is the key.

One of the biggest mistakes that we make is believing that we have no control. So use these five strategies to stay perfectly in control.

And to remind yourself that you always are.


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Camille Martin, RD

I wasted nearly 25 years of my life trying to lose weight. Now I spend my time running, juicing and "cooking" raw food, and laughing with my baby girls. I thoroughly enjoy growing Love To Lose, so I can teach you all I've learned along the way. I'm beyond excited to help you start your own journey, and I can't wait to meet you one day!
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  1. James Loran Smith on May 9, 2022 at 4:27 pm

    Your comments are always encouraging and help me to stay on track….

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