How To Manage ‘Loss of Control’ Eating During Times Of Stress

by Katy Keogh, MS, RDN, LD

Last Updated: June 18, 2020

Emotional eating can certainly be difficult to manage. At times, our feelings may drive us to eat past fullness, leaving us with an uncomfortable and out of control feeling. Intense emotions during this time of pandemic are to be expected as the ever-changing environment leaves us feeling unsettled and uncertain. You’re not alone; we all have dealt with tough feelings and mental health challenges at some point in our lives. In fact, eating for social, emotional or comfort reasons is completely normal and healthy. However, if it is so frequent or in a magnitude that interferes with your life or your wellbeing, then you may wish to change it. Let’s discuss this a bit more in-depth.

When is LOC eating okay?
Food is both enjoyable and nourishing, and both aspects are important for health. In fact, we all have some emotionally driven eating (e.g. social eating during holidays, parties, etc). Sometimes Loss of control (LOC), or emotional eating feels okay, and sometimes it doesn’t. Check in and see how you feel about it. It’s important to acknowledge that food can actually help us deal with emotions, especially when there are not many other coping strategies available. Eating does help us feel better in the moment and distracts us. If you choose to use food to comfort yourself, there is nothing wrong with that. However, there is a difference between enjoying comfort food and using food as your main source of comfort. Think of some diverse ways to comfort yourself and how they can ultimately help you in the long run.

What causes LOC eating?
There are two main categories for LOC which are outlined below: Deprivation causes and emotional causes. People can be affected by one or multiple of these. Determine if any of the items below apply to you.

Examples of Deprivation or Restriction Causes:
  • History of dieting, currently dieting, or being overly hungry. You are currently underfed or your body has been underfed in the past so it craves more food than you allow it.
  • Food Rules. Thoughts that tell you what is “right” or “wrong” to eat or viewing food as “good” or “bad”. Are you shaming yourself for what you are eating?
  • Trying to be too healthy. Are you eating a salad but you really want a slice of pizza or a burger?
  • Excess physical stress or sleep deprivation. When your body is under rested, overworked or over exercised, deprivation is created that may cause you to crave more food.
  • Last supper mentality - “I won’t have this food again so I better eat it all now.”
  • Rebellion eating - Strict food rules that you don't like or can't maintain so you decide to “give up and binge”.

Examples of Emotional Causes:
  • Boredom
  • Distraction
  • Procrastination
  • Anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Depression
  • Sadness

3 Steps to help fight LOC.
Changing ingrained behaviors like LOC eating can feel daunting. Where do you even start? Is it even possible to change? Slowly begin working yourself through the steps below:
  1. Importance. Are you ready to work on changing this behavior? Change is hard and you cannot begin to change until the level of importance builds high enough and is personal enough for you to change. Write down or think of all the reasons why changing is important to you. If there are any barriers that come to mind, address them.
  2. Non-judgmental exploration. Identify your triggers, thoughts, and feelings around your eating, both physical and emotional. Think about this before, during and after eating. Are emotions, thoughts or judgements affecting the way you eat? How hungry, full or satisfied are you? This step will help develop eating attunement. Don’t forget about the non-judgmental part of this step. If you continue to think negatively about yourself or food, attunement can’t happen. Your negative thoughts will cause bias and true exploration and change cannot occur. Try to practice empathy and kindness with yourself.
  3. Plan. Now that you’ve discovered causes, thoughts and feelings driving your eating, develop a plan to create new habits. Ensure these three components are in your plan:
    • Nourish your body. Notice when you’re hungry and full and eat enough food and regularly enough to help avoid the extremes of hunger and fullness. Plan to eat meals balanced with enough carbohydrate, fiber, protein and fluids to help create optimal nourishment and satiety.
    • Stop restrictive or negative, food or body thoughts. People with a history of restrained eating, dieting or poor body image tend to eat more when under stress or in challenging situations. People that eat freely or intuitively, those with less diet history and more positive body image do not tend to turn to food when stressed. If you catch a negative thought, try to turn it around. Say a neutral or positive thought to counteract it.
    • Find other coping mechanisms. You can still certainly use food to cope with emotions, but it can make you feel worse in the long run as it is short lived and does not deal with the emotion. Try to develop other coping skills for your emotions. Create a list of other things you can do to cope. These can be ways to distract yourself, ways to “vent” or feel the emotion head-on, or other ways to feel good and soothe yourself. Think of it as an experiment. You don’t know what will work until you try it. Have several methods and give them a try. Repeat over and over to create new habits.

Numerous studies support using an intuitive eating approach to help heal an unhealthy relationship with food. The above steps are only the beginning of intuitive eating. Intuitive eating has many other helpful and necessary facets. It is a journey worth taking. If you find yourself upset, lost, confused or stuck in any of these steps, it may be time to reach out to a therapist and/or a Registered Dietitian skilled in intuitive eating.

Strive to keep food enjoyable in all ways – both in what you choose to eat and how you choose to eat it. Do not set strict food rules that inhibit the enjoyment of food. Food can, and should, still be enjoyed in emotional ways. But if you do not feel good with your relationship with food then dig deeper into what is causing this and develop a plan to nourish your body and mind in a different, more positive direction.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.

Katy Keogh, MS, RDN, LD

Katy Keogh, MS, RDN, LD

A mom of 2 little kiddos and over 15 years’ experience in nutrition, Katy enjoys helping her patients squeeze good nutrition and activity into an already “full” life and find their own balance with nutrition and health while still enjoying food to the fullest. She is an expert in weight management, mindful eating, digestive health, anti-inflammatory nutrition, culinary nutrition, cooking/baking, and any other topic related to food! Outside of work, you’ll find her traveling, walking, jogging, beer tasting, and eating gelato.