What is emotional eating?

Are you hungry? How how often do you think about food during your day? 

Hunger is something vicious to manage. Have you ever asked yourself if you are emotionally hungry or physically hungry?

Eating is not just about eating. You eat because you are hungry of course. But you also indulge when you're bored, lonely, tired, angry, frustrated, and even happy. 

There is a difference between hunger and appetite. Hunger is physiological. It is a signal from the body. When you start to hear your stomach grumble then that is a physical sign that it is time to eat. The hunger gets a little more aggressive when you start to hear that growling in the stomach. When you are physically hungry, you are open to options as to what food or combination of foods will please you.

Appetite is psychological. It is a craving for certain foods without the feeling of hunger accompanying it. Psychological hunger is not caused by an actual physical pain or need for food to survive. Psychological hunger comes from a desire to eat either out of habit, because you see good food around you, because you are emotional or upset, or because it tastes good and is “fun.” Have you ever noticed that when you eat dessert at the end of a meal, you aren’t physically hungry for it … but you still eat it? You may even feel full … but you still eat it.  This desire to eat something sweet after a meal, almost as though you aren’t finished unless you have that sweet thing, is a form of psychological hunger.

The idea that you can diet by ignoring your psychological hunger underestimates the power that your mind exerts over your actions. Instead of seeing the aesthetic goals you have in written down, you see the intensity of your psychological hunger increasing until it is too difficult to deny. 

How do you control psychological hunger?

First you must recognize the difference between your physical hunger and psychological hunger. Look for triggers to your psychological hunger and develop strategies to either limit your exposure to these triggers or come up with alternative behaviors for dealing with them. Mental toughness is an illusion and a limited resource.

Unmet emotional needs, stress, anger, depression, boredom and simple habit can cause psychological hunger to spiral out of control.

Here are some of the principles I have lived by that help me and the individuals I guide down this journey.
1) Plan your meals at least the day before. Prepare your meals and snacks the night before.
2) Always have something healthy to eat within arm’s reach or a short walk to the fridge.
3) Keep tempting foods out of the house/office until your self awareness improves. When you find yourself sad, anxious, stressed, or bored, seek social support or exercise. Both provide mood benefits and are positive actions to take.
4) Work on becoming more mindful and accepting of your emotions as they are.

Practice basic mindfulness skills like scanning your body to notice any feelings. Observe and describe where and how you feel those emotions. Allow yourself to sit with them without trying to change them or make them go away. See if you can imagine making room for them and allowing them to come and go naturally. Learn this skill well and you can step out of the emotional eating carousel almost entirely.

Finally, you can learn to measure the long term cost of emotional eating. 

Have you ever noticed that after you have had that bag of chips you don't quite feel that sense of relief anymore? The short term comfort you get from eating is replaced by guilt or shame soon after. This can become a vicious cycle.  If you feel guilty or shameful about what you ate, and you want to feel better right now, guess what. Food is there for you again. And the cycle continues. You may experience stress from a difficult day at work, but now you added shame to that. That’s a big cost, and the cost shows up because you said that you have to change the state of mind you are experiencing. So there is a cost to being unwilling to feel what we feel. It has long term health implications if your primary coping strategy is eating. Practice bringing this cost to your awareness. Get to a place where you say, “If I eat this cake now I will feel better for a short time and then worse later on and I will also have harmed my health a little.” 

The goal isn’t to make the healthy choice every time. The goal is to make it a choice, as opposed to automatically eating. Over time perhaps you start choosing health more.