Eating, for most people, is an experience that enhances your emotions. It is the most common way to deal with feelings, but a lot of people are unaware of the turning point of their relationship with food – this is when everything turns sour. Emotional eating is when people use food to deal with feelings instead of satisfying hunger.
Mindful eating vs. emotional eating
Mindful eating is a practice that allows you to develop an awareness to your eating habits, which results in being able to pause between your triggers and actions. As you master this practice, you can tackle and alter the habits that have damaged your diet or relationship with eating in the past.
Emotional eating is feeling powerless to the call of eating and creating a pattern of continuously eating when the urge is there. Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better – it’s to eat to fill emotional needs rather than satisfying hunger.
The difference between physical and emotional hunger
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly – it is an urgent overwhelming feeling that often creates a craving for craves specific foods. When you are physically hungry you normally don’t crave a specific food, almost anything sounds good. Emotional eating doesn’t satisfy, whereas physical hunger can be satisfied although it usually takes 20 minutes for the digested and absorbed nutrients to turn off the hunger signals coming from the hypothalamus. Emotional hunger isn’t felt in your stomach, it’s a craving that circles your head; Rita Rover, a registered dietitian, says “Emotional hunger can be described as mouth hunger or head hunger…it’s hard to satisfy that kind of hunger which then leads to grazing and often bingeing.”
Emotional hunger is easily confused with physical hunger, but there are ways to determine if emotional eating has a power and control over you. Rover says “When people pay attention to hunger signals (stomach emptiness or discomfort and possibly growling) and learn to satisfy it, it’s a new experience for some and they enjoy it.”
Are you an emotional eater?
Do you reward yourself with food? Does food make you feel safe? Do you eat more when you’re stressed or bored? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be an emotional eater. It is important to know that emotional eating doesn’t just have to be eating because of a negative emotion, while most times it is a result of anger, sadness, or anxiousness, it can be in result of happiness or love.
Emotional eating can be tied to a major life event, which could be the reason for your emotional eating. The countless little events during the day that stress you out could pile up and also lead you to emotional eating. Eating your favorite food or sweets temporarily blocks out these stresses, but in the end, you might end up feeling worse than before because of the realization of the amount of food/calories you had just consumed.
The loss of willpower in the process of emotional eating is an emotional trigger all in itself. This cycle of eating continues to solidify into your daily habits and is a hard one to break. One sign to look out for so you don’t fall into the cycle is over eating. Rover says, “I look for signs of overeating [in my patients] such as large portions or taking second servings, feelings of uncontrolled or unconscious eating, grazing.” If you are aware of these possible actions you are taking, it will be easy to explore your triggers.
Identify your triggers.
To start the process of managing your emotional eating, you need to identify and acknowledge the triggers behind it. Rover states: “Awareness is the first step. Acknowledge that you are an emotional eater. Realize that you are using food as a coping tool. Plan strategies to substitute for using food as your drug of choice. Understand that will power doesn’t always work.” Your triggers may be often associated with an unpleasant feeling or event. Here are some triggers that are commonly seen:
Stress: This is one of the top triggers for emotional eating and there is a big reason as to why. The science behind the reason why stress prompts eating is because of a hormone called Cortisol. This triggers craving for salty, sweet, and high-fat foods. The more stressed you are, the more likely you are to be an emotional eater.
Boredom or Emptiness: If you feel unfulfilled or empty, you may turn to food to fill this void. You can numb yourself with food instead of facing the feeling of emptiness.
Social Influences: Going out with friends can often leave to overindulging. You could also be nervous because of the social situation and be led to overeating to calm yourself.
Stop Emotional Eating and Control Your Cravings
In order to stop emotional eating, you need to learn to control your cravings. Understanding emotional eating and becoming aware of your trigger is a huge first step to overcoming emotional eating, however in order to leave emotional eating in the past, you need to learn alternatives.
Often time breaking a craving is a hard obstacle to overcome. Rover suggests low cal foods are a good substitute to the foods you may be craving. Some examples may be frozen fruit (grapes and banana chunks), sugar free ice pops, tea, and gum are some good suggestions to remember.
Calling friends, reading a book or taking a hot bath are ways to relieve stress and distract yourself from the urge to eat or balance your eating (this is not to be used as a “diet” this is only tips if you are experiencing an emotional eating pattern). When a crave hits pause for a moment, before eating the entire tub of ice cream take 5. Just wait, check in with yourself and see how you are feeling.
Rover says, “Ask yourself if you are truly stomach hungry. If the answer is ‘maybe’, try to wait a while to be sure. If the answer is ‘no,’ your body doesn’t need fuel. Ask yourself what’s going on, what’s the real need and try to take care of the real need or if that’s not possible, use some of the above escape techniques. If the answer is ‘yes,’ then it’s ok to eat. Acceptable reasons for eating are true stomach hunger or schedule. Eating for other reasons may have to do with emotional cues and if it’s affecting your physical or emotional health…on the other hand, if it’s not excessive, it’s ok to include occasional treats, even when you are not following your hunger or schedule. Enjoying food is one of life’s pleasures.”