What is Emotional Eating?
Have you ever been really stressed at work, which made you feel like you had no will power left over to resist the donuts that your co-worker brought in, so you quickly ate one and then felt guilty about it?
Have you been so exhausted at the end of a busy and demanding week that you plopped down in front of the TV and ate an entire bag of potato chips by yourself in what seemed like a matter of seconds?
Have you been emotionally hurt by or angry at a loved one, so you proceeded to drink a bottle of wine and eat ALL the chocolate that you could find?
Have you been on a diet, trying to eat healthy, resisting temptation all week….only to end up binge-watching your favorite Netflix show on Friday night and ordering greasy take-out because your weekend plans fell through?
Have you drowned your break-up sorrows in a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or with a box of girl scout cookies?
YEP. We’ve all experienced something like this at some point. These are all examples of Emotional Eating.
Emotional eating is when you seek emotional comfort from eating food.
Usually, it comes as a response to a negative emotion, a triggering stressful event, boredom, social pressure, or an unmet emotional need.
What’s the difference between Emotional Hunger & Physical Hunger?
(The following content on the “6 signs” is adapted from an article called “Emotional Eating: How to recognize & Stop emotional and stress eating”, featured on helpguide.org. Authors of the original article: Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal Ph.D., and Robert Segal, M.A.)
When you are eating from a place of emotion, you eat to make yourself feel better or to numb certain experiences or emotions, rather than eating solely to satisfy physical hunger.
The following are 6 signs of Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger.
1. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly.
An emotion or experience comes up (you feel bored, you’re lonely, you are frustrated & angry, you’re overwhelmed & stressed, you are sad, you’re avoiding an emotion you don’t want to think about, etc.) and suddenly you really NEED a cookie or a comfort food snack. Your need for that comfort food feels urgent and takes over your thought. Physical hunger comes on more gradually and doesn’t demand instant satisfaction unless you haven’t eaten in a long time.
2. Emotional hunger has specific cravings.
When you’re eating to suppress an emotion, or eating as a reward, you usually crave a very specific comfort food or specific flavors & textures. “Comfort” food is typically more unhealthy or full of processed sugars. This is usually because that type of food provides an instant pleasure spike to your brain or because that food has a positive memory association with it such as a childhood memory. When you’re eating for physical hunger, pretty much anything sounds good because your body needs actual fuel.
3. Emotional hunger hates mindfulness.
When eating for emotional hunger, we often eat mindlessly, not even aware of the speed or the quantity of food that we are eating. All of a sudden, the entire bag of chips is gone, or the whole pint of ice cream has disappeared. Often, you haven’t even really fully enjoyed the flavors of what you’re eating because you’re avoiding being too mindful of what you’re doing. When eating for physical hunger, you’re typically more alert & aware of what you’re putting in your mouth.
4. Emotional hunger doesn’t stop when you’re full.
Have you ever had an emotional eating binge where you ate until your stomach literally hurt because you were so stuffed? This is because the craving you were trying to fulfill with emotional eating didn’t live in your stomach, it didn’t listen for the “I’m full” signal from your body in the same way that physical hunger would have done.
5. Emotional hunger is based in your mind, not in your stomach.
When you are physically hungry, your body sends you physical symptoms, such as stomach cramps, a growling stomach, or a headache or shakiness from low blood sugar. Emotional hunger is driven by your emotional needs being unmet or by a craving that you have fixated on in your mind.
6. Emotional hunger is often tied to regret, guilt, & shame.
If you’re physically hungry, and you eat to meet that need, there is rarely any guilt attached because you know that your body needed you to eat for energy and fuel. Emotional hunger on the other hand typically makes us feel out of control, guilty about our cravings, and ashamed of numbing our emotions with food.
So how can I stop emotional hunger from taking over?
The next time you feel yourself numbing your emotions with food, stop and ask yourself the following questions:
(These make a great journal exercise!)
- What is the trigger of my emotional hunger? How does it make me feel?
- What is the root of your craving, what is really going on?
- What is the emotion behind your emotional hunger trying to tell you?
- What are other things you enjoy that bring you physical comfort & pleasure outside of food?
- What is a healthy way that you can meet your emotional hunger craving?
- How can I be more mindful, intentional, and present in my eating?