Is your work and/or personal life a daily grind of surviving turbulent emotional stress? Tight deadlines, illness, family, relationship and financial problems are enough to succumb to an emotional eating binge. You need food to fuel your muscles, but food also feeds your feelings.
Emotional vs. Physiological Hunger
When eating is triggered by emotion rather than physiological hunger, it’s known as ’emotional eating’ and comes at a cost to your health. Emotional hunger is distinctly different from being physically hungry. It strikes suddenly, whereas the rumblings of physiological hunger occur gradually.
Emotional hunger is a psychological need to fill a void and generally involves a craving for a specific food, i.e., a ‘comfort food’. On the other hand, physiological hunger can be satisfied by any variety of foods and isn’t focused on one particular item.
Comfort foods are foods that you crave to obtain a good feeling when you’re in a negative mood, such as when you’re angry or depressed. But you may also reach for comfort foods to sustain good, positive emotions, such as when you’re happy, relieved or elated. Comfort foods become dangerous when they’re unhealthy choices.
The most popular comfort foods for women are sweet, such as:
- Ice cream
Men, however, tend to gravitate towards food with more substance, such as:
When physiological hunger is satisfied, you’re more likely to stop eating, whereas when you’re eating to satisfy an emotional need, you’re more likely to continue eating past the point of being full. Emotional overeating often results in feelings of guilt and defeat if you’re trying to lose weight. These feelings can trigger yet another emotional eating binge.
When you’re eating emotionally and not when you physiologically need food, you’ll tend to consume more calories than your body needs. If these extra calories aren’t used, they’ll be stored as fat which can eventually lead to health problems, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Managing Your Emotions
If you were given food as a reward or to cope with emotions (e.g., cookies or ice cream to ‘cheer you up’), you never learned to manage their emotions. When food becomes your friend and your only strategy to resolve emotional distress, you risk the associated dangers of overeating and unhealthy eating.
Know Your Triggers
Take ownership of your emotions and health. Dealing with emotions is a skill that’s learned. Triggers often include: loneliness, boredom, sadness, fear, frustration, stress, depression, deprivation, anxiety, shame, lack of control, avoidance, and defeat. When you have the urge to eat emotionally, consider the following alternatives to cope:
- Express your emotions rather than shove them down with food. Call a friend of write about your feelings in a journal.
- Get physical or productive. Go for a walk/jog, play with your pet or play a game, or work out at the gym. (Exercise helps release endorphins that trigger feelings of well-being.) Wash the car, clean house, do laundry, work in the garden, or redecorate a room.
- Calm yourself. Do yoga/meditation.
- Seek help. Individual or group counseling may be effective in coping with emotional stress.
- Find ways to have fun and laugh.
Be Aware of Your Behavior
Be careful not to substitute your emotional coping mechanism (eating) with one that can lead to another negative out-of-control (addictive) behavior, such as compulsive shopping and spending, drugs/alcohol, or gambling.
The solution to emotional eating is to first recognize it as well as identify a pattern. The next time you have the urge to eat:
- Stop and ask yourself if you’re physically hungry.
- Then rate your level of hunger on a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being ravenous and 10 being so full you feel sick).
- Next, describe your mood. Are you happy, sad, lonely, bored, stressed, etc.?
- Then note what food you’re craving.
This exercise will help you identify whether your need to eat is emotional or physiological, which emotions trigger you to eat, and which emotions are associated with particular foods.
Fit Tip: It may not be necessary to completely eliminate comfort foods from your eating plan if you can eat them mindfully and with some restraint (i.e., a few spoonfuls of ice cream versus a whole pint). Practice dealing with your emotions and you’ll learn to moderate the subsequent cravings.
It’s not necessary to completely eliminate comfort foods from your eating plan. Eat them in moderation. If you can satisfy a craving with a few spoonfuls of ice cream versus a whole pint, then that’s okay. The key is to learn how to deal with your emotions and satisfy the subsequent cravings.