Whether your food cravings lean toward sweet or salty, it’s likely that you’ve found yourself — at least once — indulging in a treat even when you know you’re not actually hungry. It happens to the best of us: mindless eating in front of the TV, a few extra pieces of candy to help manage stress at the office, a cozy night in with a pint of ice cream to recover from a bad breakup. You may be killin’ it at the gym and cooking super healthy meals, but emotional eating can still pose a challenge to even the best-intentioned.

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“Emotional eating is when you eat for reasons other than hunger, such as to fill a void or out of anger or stress,” says Dr. Caroline Cederquist, who specializes in nutrition and founded bistroMD, a healthy meal delivery service. Getting trapped in unhealthy nutrition cycles triggered by our emotional state can have far-reaching consequences. Emotional eating often leads us to change our nutrition habits. In times of stress, who hasn’t turned to something with a little extra sugar or fat? According to Dr. Cederquist, overindulging in these types of foods can cause metabolic dysfunction, which leads to side effects like fatigue and weight gain.

Even more importantly, handling feelings with food fails to address the root of the problem. “When people reach this level, they stop learning healthier ways to deal with their emotions and feel increasingly powerless over food and their feelings,” Dr. Cederquist says. Stress itself also increases risk factors for many serious health problems, and self-medicating with snacks is really just a temporary solution. It’s important to learn more sustainable coping mechanisms for emotions that won’t create additional problems down the road.

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How do you know when you’re eating your feelings? “Emotional hunger comes on suddenly and feels overwhelming and urgent,” Dr. Cederquist says. People often experience “cravings of high fat and carb-loaded foods or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush… [but will] not make them feel satisfied when they’re full.” Dr. Cederquist shares some expert tips to help you “Confront your emotional eating habit and fill it with what you really crave in life instead.”

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1. Get moving. Exercise is a great way to channel stress and other negative emotions in a productive way. More specifically, Dr. Cederquist recommends yoga, since it increases mindfulness and boosts mood-improving hormones, and suggests checking out a gym or workout class with a friend.

2. Try something new. Learn a new hobby or redirect your focus toward that book you’ve had on your list for the last few months. Next time you’re feeling stressed or upset, you’ll be grateful to have another activity on hand. According to Dr. Cederquist, simply “Reading your favorite magazine for five minutes should do the trick in distracting your mind from eating when you’re not truly hungry.”

3. Find your support system. Instead of turning to food when you’re feeling emotional, seek connection with the people in your life who you know will make you feel better.

4. Boost your energy. Even if you’re not a fan of the gym, short bursts of activity, like dancing to your favorite song, can turn your mood around. If your appetite stems from stress, work out your anxiety with a stress ball.

5. Plan meals ahead of time. You’ll be less likely to engage in unhealthy snacking if you have nutritious food available to eat when you’re under pressure. Meal prepping is always a great option, or you can have someone else do the heavy lifting by subscribing to a meal delivery service.

6. Catch up on sleep. As we all know, it’s a lot easier to get stressed out when you’re exhausted, so stay ahead of your emotional wellness by getting plenty of rest.

Do you have an emotional eating habit? Tweet us @BritandCo and let us know how you deal.

(Photos via Getty)