It’s not uncommon to turn to food (stress eating) in times of stress or high emotion. Many of us find solace in comfort foods when we’re having a bad day, but for some the compulsion to eat when stressed can become a serious problem if it leads to weight gain and, in turn, weight-related health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

It can be tough to break the habit of emotional eating, not only because when we’re feeling low it is even more difficult to exercise discipline and avoid overeating. Persistent stress causes an increase in the hormone cortisol, which can increase appetite. Plus, there is evidence to suggest that foods that are high in fat and sugar are more likely to be craved when we’re stressed, because both temporarily inhibit activity in the parts of the brain that produce stress-related emotions.

There are a lot of emotional and physical factors at play that can make it tough to break the habit of stress eating. However, we do have a few tips that may help you to overcome the problem.

Keep a Food and Mood Journal

Sometimes we turn to food for comfort without even really acknowledging what emotions we’re experiencing. When you find yourself stress eating, focus on establishing the emotion you feel, then write it down in a notebook along with the time, date, the cause of that emotion if you know it, and the food you consume.

With time, you’ll be able to better understand the patterns in your emotional eating. Then, you can better prepare yourself for potential stress eating and start formulating strategies to help you cope with stress without food. This may be as simple as avoiding keeping certain foods in the house, to planning relaxing activities on days you expect to have high stress levels.

Remind Yourself that Emotions Change

As with any other emotion, stress ebbs and flows and is more severe at some times than others. It’s easy to feel very overwhelmed by stress, but if you keep reminding yourself that the feeling won’t last forever, you may be able to just ride through it without the need to eat. Keeping the food and mood journal can help with this process.

Find a Relaxing Hobby

We all need ways to cope with stress, but the key is finding methods that don’t cause more problems than they rectify. Stress eating can lead to weight gain and health problems, which in the long term will only make you feel more stressed. Instead, look for a hobby that helps to alleviate stress that only benefits your life. This could be going for a walk, doing some yoga, or arranging to socialize and offload some of your worries to friends or family.

Choose Low-Fat, Low-Sugar Foods

If you’re really struggling to resist the compulsion to eat when stressed, try making small changes first by choosing foods which aren’t high in fat and sugar. In doing so you won’t reward the brain when it craves these comforting foods to alleviate stress, and you can begin to gradually break the habit. Plus, foods that are high in fat and sugar tend to be very calorie dense, so by choosing healthier, less calorie dense foods you can minimize weight gain caused by stress eating.