“Make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens.” Epictetus
When I first opened my yoga studio, now almost 10 years ago, there were many nights I went home without students showing up for class. I was miserable and not willing to let the process unfold as the business grew, nor was I able to sit with the emotions that were stirring within me. It became typical that when there were no students, I would stop at the grocery on the way home to buy a sweet treat. There was always plenty of food at home, but the lack of students instantly gave me an insatiable need for sugar. At that time, I didn’t recognize this pattern for what it really was. I thought I was physically hungry when in fact I was Emotionally hungry.
What is Emotional Hunger?
Emotional hunger is a form of Mindlessness. It is triggered by emotional, rather than physical, cues. It’s “fed” by emotionally eating for comfort, eating routinely out of conditioned habits such as time cues, environmental or social events, and believing there are “good” and “bad” foods, among other triggers. If you find yourself eating everything put in front of you despite not being physically hungry, you are probably eating emotionally. In working with clients, I find that those who tend to over-consume, eat when stressed, sad or lonely and do it quickly. Much of the time, this pattern occurs while doing other things, like watching TV, working at the computer, texting, or even driving.
Unfortunately, emotional eating doesn’t resolve emotional problems. Quite often, it makes you feel worse, as afterward the issue lingers AND you feel guilty for using food to self-soothe.
When are you 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 (to calm and soothe yourself when you’re sad, mad, bored, anxious, etc.)?
- Do you reward yourself with food?
- Do you regularly eat until you’re overly full?
- Does food make you feel safe? Do you feel like food is a friend?
- Do you feel powerless or out of control around food?
How to determine Emotional vs. Physical Hunger?
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly
Physical hunger comes on gradually
Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly
Physical hunger can wait
Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods
Physical hunger is open to options—lots of things sound good
Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied with a full stomach.
Physical hunger stops when you’re full
Emotional eating triggers feelings of guilt, powerlessness, and shame
Eating to satisfy physical hunger doesn’t make you feel bad about yourself
What Triggers Emotional Eating?
Stress. When stress is chronic, as it so often is in current world, your body produces high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods—foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure.
Stuffing emotions. Eating can be a way to silence or “stuff” uncomfortable emotions, including anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame. While you’re numbing yourself with food, you can avoid the difficult, and often uncomfortable, emotions.
Boredom or feelings of emptiness. Eating can become a way to give yourself something to do, to relieve boredom, or as a way to fill a void in your life. Perhaps if you feel unfulfilled, food becomes a way to occupy your time. In the moment, it distracts you from feelings of purposelessness and dissatisfaction.
Childhood habits. Think back to your childhood memories of food. If your parents rewarded good behavior with ice cream, pizza or sweets when you were feeling sad, these habits can carry over into adult life. Also, eating may be driven by nostalgia for cherished pleasant memories.
Social influences. Gathering with friends 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 or because everyone else is eating. You may also overeat in social situations out of nervousness, anxiety or other stressors. If your family or friends encourage you to overeat, it’s often easier to acquiesce.
How to overcome it?
- Be aware, observe, be in the moment while you are eating and even while you are craving food – before you eat
- Learn to decipher physical hunger – is your stomach rumbling, when was your last meal, did the urge come on suddenly or was it gradual?
- Stop wandering while eating, or doing other things.
- Learn to feed the right need
- Stay busy with other things – drink water, chew gum
- Consider other factors – are you lacking sleep, stressed, taking other substances?
- Plan for the unforeseen or busy days by throwing a snack into your bag
- Regulate blood sugar with complex carbs, proteins and fats
- Stock up on healthy foods and have them ready in the kitchen
- See food as fuel instead of reward or comfort
- Divide large containers of food into small portions and stash the excess for portion control, use small plates and take small bites,
- Slow down by taking smaller bites, chew your food, put your utensil down between bites
- Ask yourself “If I eat ___, then I will feel ___” this will help you understand the emotion behind a craving
- Keep a food/mood diary
- Be kind to yourself
- Categorize less (yourself and your food)
- Identify other ways to soothe
- Believe that change is possible
Want more tips? I’ll be speaking on panel discussion Monday March 13 from 1-2 Central time. You can register for the session here: