Is emotional eating driving your hunger?
Why is it that, despite our best intentions, so many diets fail? Could it be that we don’t always eat just to satisfy hunger? We know it is. Let’s face it, many of us turn to food to relieve stress or cope with unpleasant emotions, loneliness, or boredom. But, after eating, we feel even worse. The original issue remains and now we have the guilt of overeating on top of it.
There is, however, an answer. No matter how powerless you feel. By practicing mindful eating, you can change the emotional habits that have sabotaged your diet in the past, and regain control over your feelings and your food.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating (or stress eating) is using food to make yourself feel better—eating to satisfy emotional needs, rather than to satisfy physical hunger. It could be reaching for a tub of ice cream when you’re feeling down, ordering a pizza if you’re bored, or swinging by the drive-through after a stressful day at work.
Occasionally using food as a pick me up, a reward, or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when food is your primary emotional coping mechanism—when your first impulse whenever you’re stressed, upset, angry, lonely, or bored is to go to the fridge, it’s easy to get stuck in an unhealthy cycle.
Emotional hunger can’t be filled with food. Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. And you often feel worse than you did because you’ve consumed unnecessary calories.
We need to find healthier ways to deal with our emotions and learn to eat mindfully.
How can you tell if you are an emotional eater?
- Do you eat more when you’re feeling stressed?
- Do you eat when you’re not hungry or when you’re full?
- Do you eat to feel better? (when you’re feeling sad, mad, or anxious)
- Do you reward yourself with food?
- Do you regularly eat until you’ve stuffed yourself?
- Does food make you feel safe?
- Do you feel like food is a friend?
- Do you feel powerless or out of control around food?
Be honest, how many of these apply to you?
The difference between emotional and physical hunger
Emotional hunger can be powerful, so it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. But there are clues you can look out for to tell them apart.
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly.
It hits you in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent.
Physical hunger comes on more gradually.
Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods.
When you’re physically hungry any food sounds good, even healthy stuff. Emotional hunger craves junk food and instant-rush snacks. You feel you need cheesecake.
Emotional hunger leads to mindless eating.
Before you know it, you’ve eaten a large bag of crisps or an entire tub of ice cream. This tends not to happen when you’re eating in response to physical hunger.
Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full.
You keep wanting more and more, often eating until you’re stuffed. With physical hunger you feel satisfied when your stomach is full.
Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach.
Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your head.
Emotional hunger often leads to regret.
When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you’re unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you’re giving your body what it needs. If you feel guilty after you eat, it’s because you know you’re not eating for the right reasons.
Identifying your triggers
Are there certain situations, places, or feelings make you reach for comfort food? Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, but it can also be triggered by positive emotions, such as rewarding yourself for achieving a goal or celebrating.
Common causes of emotional eating include:
Stuffing emotions – Eating can be a way to temporarily silence or “stuff down” uncomfortable emotions, including anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame. You avoid difficult emotions by numbing yourself with food.
Boredom or feelings of emptiness – Do you ever eat simply to give yourself something to do? Do you use food to fill a void in your life? Food is a merely a way to occupy your mouth and your time. You use food to distract yourself from your dissatisfaction with your life.
Childhood habits – Think back to your childhood memories of food. Did your parents reward good behaviour with pizza, ice cream or sweets? These habits often carry over into adulthood.
You’re eating may be driven by nostalgia—Do you have cherished memories of grilling burgers in the garden with your dad or baking cakes with your mam.
Social influences – Getting together with other people for a meal is a great way to relieve stress, but it can also lead to overeating. It’s easy to overindulge simply because the food is there. You may also overeat in social situations out of nervousness. Or perhaps you feel it’s easier to go along with the group.
What I say to my clients when they feel like having something out of pure emotion is to STOP and think “Will the 2 minutes of enjoying this food be worth feeling how I’ll feel after it?”
Think about this, every time you break away from your plan you are taking a step away from your goal and every good choice brings you a step closer to your goal. If every step, no matter how small, is in the right direction you WILL reach your goal.