Emotional Eater?

Jun 8, 2021


What is emotional hunger? Food-Mood Connections


There’s a big difference between how emotional hunger feels compared to physical hunger.


Here's how to recognize when we're eating to soothe our emotions versus eating to sate our appetite:


-A sense of urgency. Emotional hunger comes on strong and demands instant gratification. Physiological hunger develops more gradually, and needing to eat doesn’t feel as dire (unless you skipped meals!).

-Part of what we crave is the rush. When we’re physically hungry, lots of different foods sound good—including veggies and protein. Emotional hunger makes us crave fatty, sugary, or salty foods—like chips or cake—and it feels like nothing else will hit the spot.

-Eating without awareness. Sometimes, before we know it, we’ve inhaled a whole bag of chips or pint of ice cream without even enjoying it. When we eat in response to physical hunger, we’re typically more aware of what and how much we eat.

-Not easily satisfied. We keep wanting more and more; it's never enough, and often eating until we’re overstuffed. With physical hunger, we feel satiated when our stomach is full.

-When hunger stems from the brain, not the belly. Rather than sending us a message through a growl or a pang in our stomach, our emotional hunger expresses itself as a craving for a certain textured or type of food we can’t get out of our head.

Afterward, you might feel regret, guilt, and shame. Feeling negatively about ourselves after eating usually indicates that we know deep down we're not eating for nutritional reasons. I absolutely hate seeing women have shame around food. That's a negative spiral that is so painful and such a waste of life. 


What are some common triggers?


Learning to recognize why we're vulnerable to emotional eating is the first step to breaking free from food cravings. Once we realize why we're overeating, we can disrupt the cycle and begin to build a more positive relationship with food.

We all eat for different emotional reasons. Some of these might include:

- Stress

- Unexpressed anger, fear, sadness, or anxiety

- Loneliness and boredom

- Social situations, like eating in certain environments or with specific people

One way to get to the root of your own personal triggers is to keep a “food and mood” diary where you can record what you eat and how you feel before and after. You’ll start to recognize patterns so you can start to redirect your urges and find healthier ways to "feed" your feelings. 


One tip: Practice pausing


When you feel a food craving coming on, press pause, take some deep breaths, and check in with how you’re feeling. Giving yourself five minutes to choose a different way to comfort yourself can make all the difference.

Remember, you have more power over these urges than you think! Ask yourself, "What do I need to do to show myself some loving-kindness at this moment?" Your actions now have an opportunity to become conscious rather than unconscious, and you'll be better able to cope with whatever is stressing you out in a healthy way

Here are a few healthy ways to help you bypass triggers that may cause you to be emotional overeat:


Feed your soul

- Call a friend just to chat, and maybe schedule a fun activity so you have something to look forward to in the near future.

- Snuggle with a pet—they are great stress reducers!

- Dance around the house to a favorite song turned up LOUD! My choice is always 80's music. 

- Take a brisk walk around the neighborhood. Better yet, make exercise a regular part of your day. It’s sure to boost your mood!

- Make yourself a cup of hot tea, draw a bubble bath or book a massage or haircut—whatever makes you feel good. The key is to raise your spirits or reward yourself with a treat other than food.

- Curl up with a good book or watch a movie you've been wanting to see.

- Start learning a new skill, like playing piano, photography, knitting, painting, yoga, swimming, or gardening. 

Give some of these ideas a try to start unraveling your own food-mood connections. Remember, making small shifts in old habits can add up to big changes in your health. You truly can shift your response.  There’s no right or wrong way to be. The key is to figure out the most important thing for you to change and what you need to make that happen.

If you could make one small change to reduce stress eating, what would it be?  Start there. Just like any muscle, you need to keep using it for it to become strong. Building on success is the best way to put the brakes on unhealthy habits creating new healthier ones. 


For additional resources, check out these links:


Intuitive Eating, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch 

The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating (website)

Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, by Michelle May and Megrette Fletcher

Am I Hungry (website)

The Mindful Eating Cycle for Diabetes

The Hunger Scale, a simple tool to prevent overeating