Emotional vs. physical hunger
Photo by Artem Labunsky on Unsplash

Have you ever stopped to think about why you eat? If you’ve been on a weight loss journey before, the focus has probably been on what you eat. But understanding the why behind your eating habits can unlock a powerful set of tools to support you in your journey to a healthier you.

After all, food is so much more than fuel. Food is wrapped up in our culture, our relationships, and even parts  of our identity. And in all honesty, we don’t just eat because of our physical hunger. We also eat because of our emotional hunger. 

Why Do We Eat?

Physical Hunger

My stomach can tell time. Every day, like clockwork, it starts to grumble a little before noon. This is physical hunger. Physical hunger is simply your body telling you that it needs nutrition. It usually starts gradually and is generally felt from within your stomach.

Some people will interpret physical hunger as a headache, feeling shaky or lightheaded. If that sounds like you, you’re probably not paying enough attention to your hunger. 

This may happen if you wait too long to eat or ignore your hunger because of your diet. If you’ve been dieting for a long time, you may eat according to the “rules” of the diet, rather than actual hunger. 

Then, it can become difficult to know when you’re actually hungry when you’re no longer dieting.

Assessing Hunger and Fullness

Have you ever noticed how kids are very in tune with their own hunger and fullness? They are perfectly content skipping a meal one day or eating way more than usual another day.

Because of this, their calorie intake and output naturally adapts most of the time.

But many of us adults have lost the ability to tell if we are hungry or not. When did we stop being self-aware?

It might have started at some point in your childhood. Maybe you grew up in a house that emphasized the “clean plate club”, and it was expected that you would finish your plate. 

Maybe you learned to eat past the point of fullness and override your own hunger and fullness cues. Sometimes that may still happen if you’re visiting well-intentioned family members and feel bad saying no to their food.

Or maybe it started later, when you became aware that your body didn’t look how you wanted it to look. So, you started restricting what you ate and have been on and off a diet since then. 

You learned that the feeling of hunger should be ignored (or celebrated?), and that you couldn’t trust your body to tell you when to eat food. You may have feared feeling out of control with eating.

It’s also possible that you can relate to both stories. That you started at one extreme, and then switched to the other. 

As I work with clients, I help them uncover where they lost the ability to assess their physical hunger. I help them focus on all the foods that can be added to improve health, rather than focusing on the foods to limit. 

An abundance mindset can help retrain your body and transform your relationship with food for the better.

Emotional Hunger

Most of my clients are keenly aware of emotional hunger. Emotional hunger is your body seeking comfort, stress relief, or a reward. Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better.

The painful reality is that emotional eating doesn’t fix emotional problems. In fact, it usually makes things worse, because not only is the original issue still there, but you also feel guilty for what you ate.

Long term, this can be a huge driver of weight gain and difficulty sticking to a healthy diet long term. But the good news is this can be overcome, no matter how long you’ve been struggling with this!

How to Recognize Emotional Eating

Before you can put a stop to emotional eating, you have to be able to recognize it. You have to be able to see emotional vs. physical hunger. This can be trickier than it sounds, especially if you regularly use food to deal with your feelings. 

But, there are clues you can look for to help you tell emotional vs. physical hunger apart.

Ask yourself these questions to determine if you’re an emotional eater:

  • Do you eat more when you’re feeling stressed?
  • Do you eat when you’re not hungry or continue to eat when you’re full?
  • Do you eat to feel better (when you’re sad, mad, bored, anxious, etc)?
  • Do you reward yourself with food?
  • Do you frequently eat until you’ve stuffed yourself?
  • Does food make you feel safe? Do you feel like food is a friend?
  • Do you feel powerless or out of control around food?

If you answered yes to more than 2 of these questions, emotional eating could be impacting your weight loss progress than you realize. 

Below is a chart that summarizes emotional vs. physical hunger signs. Use this as a guide for yourself to start to learn how to tell the difference.

Physical Hunger Signs vs. Emotional Hunger Signs

Physical Hunger SignsEmotional Hunger Signs
Comes on graduallyComes on suddenly
Can wait to be satisfiedFeels like it needs to be satisfied instantly
Open to options, many foods sound goodCraves specific foods (usually those without nutritional value)
Stops when you’re full (or satisfied)Is not satisfied with a full stomach
Doesn’t make you feel bad about yourselfTriggers feelings of guilt, powerlessness, and shame

How to Stop Emotional Eating and Tune Into Your Body

Once you’ve identified that you are emotionally eating, you can start to move away from it.

First, it is important to realize that using food as a reward is not always a bad thing. Sometimes we use food as a pick-me-up, reward, or celebration. To think that we will never eat emotionally again is unrealistic (and not very helpful). 

But when eating is your primary way of coping, you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle of overeating, feeling guilt or shame, and then turning to food as comfort again. In doing this, the real problem is never addressed. 

You actually stop learning healthy ways to deal with your emotions, you have a harder time managing your weight, and the feelings of powerlessness increase.

But, there is good news! You can learn how to deal with your emotions in a positive way that avoids triggers, lessens cravings, and puts a stop to uncontrollable emotional eating.

Identify Your Triggers

What situations, places, or feelings make you reach for food? It doesn’t have to be negative feelings, it can also be positive feelings. Below are four common causes of emotional eating.

When stress is high, your cortisol levels increase. Cortisol is a stress hormone that when chronically high can increase weight, particularly around the stubborn belly area. 

Stress. Cortisol also triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods, making it feel harder to control your cravings for these foods.

Boredom. Do you go in and out of your kitchen multiple times a day because you’re bored? This can be a habit you’ve been doing for a long time, or started to develop with spending more time at home now post-pandemic.

Either way, food can be seen as a temporary pastime or distraction from life. But, it’s not a long-term solution. 

Numbing. Similar to chronic boredom is using food to suppress your emotions. It could be any negative emotion that you don’t want to address in the moment. 

This may not feel easy to break.  Many of us have been given food as a source of comfort as we were growing up. Eating distracts you and allows you to feel a sense of pleasure.

Social Settings. It’s so much easier to overindulge when there is more food than usual or when everyone else is eating. 

You may eat to combat social anxiety. Or your friends and family encourage you to overeat and it seems easier to give in. 

You may not want to hear comments such as “you don’t need to do that, you look fine” or risk other questions that you just don’t have the energy to answer.

Emotional vs. physical hunger
Photo by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash

Start an Emotional Eating Journal

Recognizing the trends in your habits is the first step. But to move forward, you need to go beyond just knowledge and take real action.

One of the best ways to identify the patterns is to use a journal.

When you recognize an emotional eating moment (either before or after it happens), take a moment to ask yourself what is triggering it. There is often a thought or an event that kick-started the urge. 

Write it all down – what you ate (or craved), what upset you, how you felt before, what you felt as you were eating, how you felt afterward. One of the tools I use with my clients is a mindful eating app called Ate, which allows you to see these trends in real time.

Through tracking, you’ll see a pattern emerge. Once you know what is triggering you, you can start to identify healthier ways to handle your feelings.

Feed Your Feelings Without (all of the) Food

It’s not enough to know it’s happening or even to understand your triggers. Those are great steps, and it’s okay if it takes you some time to get there. 

But, what will truly fix the problem is replacing those unhealthy habits with healthier coping mechanisms.You need alternative ways to handle your emotions and find daily fulfillment. 

Find a Healthy Outlet

Finding healthy outlets is essential. I often recommend making a list of at least 3 non-food habits to do on a regular basis to both prevent and manage emotional eating.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Talk to a therapist
  • Call a close friend
  • Play with a pet
  • Take a few deep breaths
  • Look at photos or mementos
  • Dance it out
  • Exercise (one that you enjoy!)
  • Squeeze a stress ball
  • Sip hot tea
  • Take a bath
  • Wrap up in a warm blanket
  • Read a book
  • Watch a comedy show
  • Get outside
  • Pick up a new hobby or get back into something you love

Hit Pause and Check-In

While all of these ideas can be helpful on most occasions, what about when you’re in the moment and you can’t access them? 

When the craving feels so powerful, you’re not sure it’s possible to distract yourself. In times like this, take a moment to pause and reflect. Allow yourself the chance to make a different decision.

Can you put off eating for five minutes? Or even just one minute. It’s not that you can’t eat what you’re craving or you have to “resist” it. You’re just telling yourself to wait a little bit.

Check-in while you’re waiting. How are you feeling? What’s going on? This can help set you up for a different response next time (even if you do end up eating this time!).

Feel your feelings. This is one of the hardest pieces for most of my clients. Feeling the negative emotions can feel scary. But many of our emotions will lose their power when we stop pushing them aside. 

Support Yourself with a Healthy Lifestyle

Finally, remember that it takes time to break the cycle of emotional eating. Don’t beat yourself up for turning to food throughout this process. 

It is important to take care of yourself and take it one day at a time. It likely took years to develop your current habits, and so it may take some time to break them.  

Exercise regularly. Incorporate more movement into your day to improve your mood, energy, and reduce stress. 

If you can get in some movement outside, even better. If it’s cold, bundle up and go for a brisk walk or jog. You’ll warm up within minutes!

prioritize sleep
Photo by Vladislav Muslakov on Unsplash

Prioritize sleep. We have heard 7-8 hours is ideal for most adults, but the quality of that sleep matters, too. When you wake up feeling rested, you are better able to resist food cravings.

To do this, aim for a healthy bedtime routine such as a warm bath and 10 minutes of reading. This will calm your mind and take you away from the screens and technology that may be keeping you up. 

Create a sleep schedule that is as consistent as possible from day to day. When you have a predictable sleep and wake cycle, your body knows what to expect and adapts more easily to it.

Practice mindful eating. When you slow down your eating, you give yourself a chance to truly enjoy your food. You will also be able to notice when you’re getting full, so you’re less likely to overeat. 

This can help significantly with portion control, without you actively “restricting” your portions. Smaller amounts of food can satisfy you just as much when you give yourself time to listen to your body.

Mindful eating also helps you get back in touch with your natural hunger and fullness cues which may be diminished from past dieting attempts

Seek connection. We are truly struggling with a loneliness epidemic. We have more ways to connect nowadays, and yet many of us feel more isolated.

Make it a point to nurture your close relationships and truly connect with people (real people, not just social media). This is even more important during a pandemic!

Build your support system. In addition to your friends and family, find the professional help that you need. Seek out a therapist, personal trainer, dietitian, and life coach to set yourself up for success.

Learning how to break the emotional eating cycle is a core part of my weight loss program. If you need help, contact me to schedule a complimentary call to see if it’s a good fit for you.

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