From the Heart and Stroke Foundation

By Sean McNeely

Karen Trainoff was stressed to the breaking point. Recently divorced, working full time and adjusting to being a single parent, she was exhausted - until she discovered instant mashed potatoes. Each night after putting her four-year-old son to bed, she would make herself a big bowl and eat till it was gone.

The carb-laden snack helped Trainoff relax and sleep better. And with so much transition in her life as well as bouts of loneliness, she found the ritual comforting, whether she was hungry or not. Over the next two years she gained 70 pounds.

It was a classic case of emotional eating - eating driven by emotions rather than hunger. It's no secret that food can bring us comfort. But when we eat as a way to cope with problems such as depression, boredom, anxiety, anger, frustration and stress, the result can be poor self-esteem and unwanted weight gain, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

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Trainoff managed to break her habit and lose the weight in small steps, starting by swapping unbuttered, salt-free popcorn for the mashed potatoes. Now, more than a dozen years later, she is senior manager of health partnerships at the Heart and Stroke Foundation. She is also a registered dietitian who has used her own experience to help clients overcome emotional eating. Here are her tips:

  • Find out what's eating you. Keep a journal to record when you eat, where you are, who you are with and how you're feeling. Trainoff finds many clients are surprised by the patterns that emerge on the page, showing clear triggers for unhealthy eating habits.
  • Take one step at a time. Once you've identified the source of your habit, take steps to break it. You could substitute healthier alternatives to replace junk food; gradually reduce portion size, perhaps by eating snacks from a bowl instead of the package; change your surroundings by moving to a different room when you eat; and try out behaviours that might distract you from the urge to eat. Trainoff stresses that the solutions depend on your personal triggers, and will be different for everyone.
  • Don't go cold turkey. Set small, achievable goals to change your behaviour - that's the best approach for long-term success. Overcoming emotional eating is about changing habits, which takes time and commitment.
  • Check your shopping cart. If you have a weakness for a certain junk food, don't buy it. You can't eat what you don't have.
  • Talk to an expert. A dietitian could help you analyze your food habits and find ways to make healthier choices. Locate one near you through Dietitians of Canada.
  • Get help if you need it. Emotional eating can signal more serious emotional or mental health issues such as depression. If you feel your habit is beyond your control, seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider such as a therapist.

Posted: August 2012

Heart and Stroke Foundation


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