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Conquer Emotional Eating

Master this secret to outsmarting the food mood connection and you'll slim down fast.

By Robert A. Barnett and Carol Landau, Ph.D.

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Eat Your Way to Weight Loss

"When I get stressed out, I can polish off a dozen Munchkins in no time flat," admits Jennifer, 37, a New Jersey mom of four. Pressure is at its worst when her husband travels for business. The housework piles up, the kids want more attention, she's exhausted and suddenly the sweet stuff becomes irresistible. "I eat things I don't even like," she confesses. "That's how bad it gets."

When we use food to dull our anger, sadness or anxiety, most of us reach for calorie bombs loaded with sugar, carbs, fat and salt. Not only do they remind us of good times (think: birthday cake, movie theater popcorn) but they also stimulate our brain's reward system. At that very moment it feels so good. Then our bad mood returns—with a side of guilt. And over time you need to consume even bigger amounts of those junk foods to get the same pleasurable feeling, just like chasing a high with other addictions, says recent research. But there's a way to break the cycle.

We developed a plan to gain control of emotional eating. Then we gave it to Jennifer and other Family Circle readers to try and checked back in with them a month later. They agreed: Change is hard but the plan works! Follow these tips that helped them—and can get you—to conquer emotional eating once and for all.

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Find Your Own Winning Formula

Take a minute to recall a past accomplishment. Perhaps you'll remember running a 10K or planning the perfect family vacation. Next, figure out what helped you succeed. Support from friends? Great organizational skills? Now apply those keys to success to your emotional eating. That's what Kathie*, 49, a Rhode Island mom of two teens, did to stop binging on cookies at night. She thought about how she quit smoking when her kids were young by taking up yoga to reduce stress. Not only did Kathie realize she had to refocus on taming tension to kick her junk food habit, but she also got a confidence boost. "If I was strong enough to stop smoking then, I can certainly stop with the cookies now!" she says.

*Names have been changed

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Wait Out Your Emotions

Instead of trying to numb yourself with food when you feel sad or anxious, listen to your feelings. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. And know that bad moods do drift away. (Unfortunately, calories don't.) Try this tip: After dinner, instead of continuing to eat, make yourself a cup of tea, set a timer to 5 minutes, sip and let your stress melt away. This worked for Jennifer on nights when her husband was out of town and she felt lonely and overwhelmed. "I wanted something sweet," says Jennifer. "But I had some tea, calmed down and let go of the negative feelings." She lost 5 pounds in one month without dieting.

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Put Your Best Food Forward

Out of sight, out of mind may sound way too simple, but it's effective. Don't bring home ice cream for yourself; trash those candy bars sitting in your desk. You'll also want to maximize exposure to healthy foods by making fruits and vegetables more visible in the fridge or on the counter. That one small move can boost consumption of fruit by 18% and veggies by 25%, say Cornell University researchers. Store healthy foods you might go overboard on—nuts, dried fruit, air-popped popcorn—in controlled portions in a ziplock bag.

Even better, know that eating more healthy foods can boost your mood in the long run. Psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, M.D., co-author of Fifty Shades of Kale, often prescribes "brain foods," including walnuts, almonds, lentils, kale, red beans, fatty fish and eggs. "You can get habituated to good stuff too," says Dr. Ramsey. "That's the great thing about the brain: You can always change it."

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Stock Your Toolkit

To help manage your emotions, you need some nonfood items at the ready. For anxiety or anger, buy a cushy ball to squeeze, a tennis ball to massage your shoulder blades or an app to help you de-stress. Universal Breathing- Pranayama Free (iTunes and Google Play, free) guides you through meditative deep-breathing exercises, and Pocket Pond (iTunes, free) combines a view of a fish pond with soothing sounds of birds and rippling water. Keep a small toy or puzzle around for when you take a break at work: Your hands will be too busy to grab food. Make sure to have upbeat songs loaded on your smartphone as an energy-boosting distraction.

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Never Say Never

Sometimes the best way to get rid of cravings is to give in to them—well, not exactly. Make a deal with yourself that you can have those chips or that candy bar in about half an hour. Research shows that after the waiting period, your craving will likely be gone. "Now when I have the afternoon munchies I tell myself I can have it later—and I stop thinking about it," says Teri, 40, a New Jersey mom of three. "If I still want that food after the appointed time, I make sure to control the portion."

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Sweat It Out of Your System

Working out is the number one habit readers told us helped them control cravings. "I always feel so great after exercise," says Cristina, 45, a mom of three in Michigan. "It's getting started that I put off. But once I'm done, wow!" A brisk walk or a bike ride isn't just a reliable mood booster—it also helps you gain confidence in your ability to improve your health and curb emotional eating. "In the late afternoon I would typically reach for food," says Teri. "Now I exercise in the morning and have a portion-controlled snack in the afternoon. I feel in control and my energy has increased dramatically!" If you're time-crunched and a 30-minute run is too hard to squeeze in, try three 10-minute walks throughout the day.

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Savor the Flavor

Turn off the TV, put down the phone and close that book while you're eating. Become aware of the sensations a food elicits before you dig in. Appreciate every bite. Try it with chocolate, a food women often struggle with, suggests Cleveland Clinic clinical psychologist Susan Albers, Psy.D., author of Eating Mindfully."I used to associate chocolate ice cream with shame," says Maureen*, a 45-year-old nurse who lives in Massachusetts. Now she's on her way to changing ice cream into a small, simple pleasure to be savored slowly. Eating mindfully can also help you manage your weight. According to Stanford University research, people who learn these skills before slimming down are more likely to keep the pounds off in the long run.

*Names have been changed

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Go to Bed

"When you're sleep deprived, the part of your brain that helps you make smart choices becomes impaired," says Katherine Sharkey, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine and psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University. "You might succumb to a big piece of cake when normally you would be able to resist." People who rest less than 6 hours a night consume more calories, especially from fat. No wonder they're more likely to be overweight. Give yourself a little relaxation time before bed and think small. If you crawl into bed at 10:30 instead of 11 each night, that's 3 1/2 hours of extra sleep a week or 14 hours a month. "That's like getting two nights of additional sleep," says Dr. Sharkey.

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Spot Your Specific Triggers

You've heard experts rave about keeping a food journal before. Well, we're asking you to go a step further by keeping a food-mood journal. For one week, jot down what you eat, noting how hungry you are and what emotions you feel before and after each meal. By increasing awareness of the connection between unhealthy eating and your emotions, you can change your patterns. "I saw that when I had PMS, I would eat even when I wasn't hungry," says Teri, who used an iPhone app called Mindful Eating (iTunes, $6) to track her moods. Being aware of how feelings were driving her habits motivated Teri to choose healthier foods. "I have failed a few days," she reveals. "But I've managed to get myself back on track the next day."

List What You Love

Steal this trick from health professionals to keep yourself on track: Create a list of good things that can happen as you change your unhealthy relationship with food. Better moods, less guilt and lost weight might make the cut. Now create a list of the bad things that could happen if you let your will slide—perhaps tighter jeans, poorer health, lower self-esteem. When your motivation flags, revisit the list and add to it to keep your progress going. You may discover new days will be better than others—don't expect to be perfect. Change doesn't occur overnight; it's a process. But by using the knowledge you have gained here, you will not only improve your relationship with food, you will also create a healthier smarter, better you.

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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