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Are You an Emotional Eater?

March 08, 2016 by

As I said earlier (see previous blog post, Why are you Eating?), we don’t eat to simply satisfy hunger. For most of us, eating is habitual—we’re not usually connected to how we’re feeling while eating. And that may not be a good thing. I’m REALLY hoping that you have taken the time to complete the FEELINGS column of your food log as suggested in the last blog… It’s the best way for you to become aware of the emotions—positive or negative —that are associated with your own eating patterns. If you haven’t had a chance to do so yet—ahem—please do—and then read on…


The first step in evaluating your FEELINGS column is to figure out whether you’re experiencing emotional hunger or physical hunger. This is not as obvious as it sounds, especially if you eat for emotional reasons or use food as a coping strategy to deal with your feelings. Emotional hunger can be a powerful trickster and can be easily mistaken for physical hunger. Here’s how you can tell them apart:


  • Emotional hunger feels like it comes out of the blue and has a sense of urgency. It may feel overwhelming. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually. The urge to eat doesn’t feel as demanding—unless of course you haven’t eaten for a very long time.


  • Emotional hunger is linked to certain foods. When you’re physically hungry, any food sounds good. I call it the Brussels sprouts test: If you want something to eat and all you have in the refrigerator are Brussels sprouts, would you eat them? If your answer is no, then you’re probably not physically hungry—you’re emotionally hungry. With emotional hunger, we tend to crave high fat, high sugar “comfort” foods. Think ice cream, chips, cookies, and chocolate. You feel like you need that particular food now and nothing else will do. If you’re really physically hungry—you’ll eat what’s available. Even if that means eating Brussels sprouts.


  • Ever been eating and suddenly stop to realize that you’ve eaten half a bag or container of food? You think, Wow. How did that happen? I’ve just eaten a significant amount without being aware of the taste, smell, or amount of the food consumed… Emotional hunger can lead to mindless eating. In contrast, with physical hunger, you’re more aware of what and how much you’re eating. You’re connected—not disconnected—to the eating experience physically and mentally.


  • With emotional hunger you keep wanting more—often until you’re stuffed. Physical hunger allows you to make deliberate food choices and to be aware of when you feel satisfied and your stomach is comfortably full.


  • Emotional hunger is in your head not in your stomach. You feel hunger as a gnawing emotion (anger, sadness, anxiety, fear, joy) that you can’t get out of your mind that’s driving you to eat. In contrast, physical hunger is underscored by sensations like a rumbling or growling stomach, feeling tired, or having low energy.


  • Whether you feel upset about your choice of food, the amount you’ve eaten, or circumstances around the eating process itself, emotional hunger leaves you feeling bad about yourself. When we eat to satisfy physical hunger, it is with the understanding that eating is necessary and can be satisfied and enjoyed without remorse. There are no feelings of guilt or regret because you’re simply giving your body what it needs to survive and thrive.


What’s in your FEELINGS COLUMN? Are there any patterns that you notice? Based on the information we just discussed were you physically hungry or emotionally hungry most of the time?


Another helpful tool to use to evaluate physical vs emotional hunger is to ask yourself when you eat, “How physically hungry am I on a scale from 1-10 (1=starving, 5=satiated 10=stuffed)?” If you are a 1-5, it’s likely that you do need something to eat. If so, that is okay. If you answer 6-10, it’s likely that you want to eat for emotional reasons.


If you find that most of your eating is emotional, the next step is to understand what’s behind your eating behaviors. Here are a few common causes of emotional eating to consider:


Stress. Did you ever notice that STRESSED is DESSERTS spelled backwards? Regardless of exactly how you define it, feeling “stressed out” can lead to eating. When stress is chronic, it can lead to an increase in a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for carbohydrates, and fat-rich foods. From a chemical standpoint, food is soothing. For example, chocolate boosts the “feel good” neurotransmitters in your body that make you more alert and relaxed. The more uncontrolled stress that you have in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief.


Avoidance. Eating can be a way to temporarily silence or “stuff down” uncomfortable emotions, such as anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame. While you’re numbing yourself with food, you can avoid the emotions that you don’t want to feel. Take the emotion anger, for example. Whether you’re angry at yourself, another person or a situation, you may stifle your feelings using food rather than confronting the person and releasing the anger. For some, it’s easier to stifle a problem than to address it.


Boredom. This is the number one reason my clients tell me that they eat when they’re not hungry. Eating is simply something to do because they are bored. It passes the time. There’s nothing to do. Nowhere to go. Of course, my response is—go and do something! Take a walk, do tai chi, listen to music, talk with a friend, take a nap, go shopping…


Emptiness. When you’re feeling unfulfilled and empty, food can literally be used as a way to fill you up by filling the void. In that moment, food functions as a distraction from underlying feelings of dissatisfaction and self-doubt.


Hopelessness. You think:  Nothing really matters anyway.  Nothing’s ever going to change or get better for me.  So, why should I care about my health or weight? Besides, eating makes me feel better.  So you do…


Control. You say to yourself—my life is out of control.  Everyone around me rules my life. Except when it comes to eating… I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want.  So I will.


Feeling unappreciated. Perhaps you’ve accomplished something meaningful and no one has noticed, or seems to really care much.  You find yourself tempted to congratulate yourself by “treating” yourself with food as a reward; or you’re feeling sorry for yourself and use food to self-soothe.


Childhood habits. I’ve heard many examples of adult eating patterns that are linked emotionally to childhood eating habits. Think back to your memories of food as a kid. Did your parents reward good behavior with food or give you something sweet when you were feeling sad?  Were certain foods withheld as a means of punishment? These emotional connections to food are very powerful and can express themselves during adulthood—especially during stressful periods in your life. So next time when you’re reaching for a piece of candy after having a good day at work—ask yourself—Did mom give me a cookie when I brought home a good grade from school or scored the winning goal in the soccer game?


Situational triggers. Sometimes certain situations or places make us reach for the comfort of food. For example, when we’re alone, or with a large group of people, or in the car, or at the movie theatre… Take a look at where and when you eat to help identify situations that may be triggering emotional eating.


Don’t get me wrong, using food from time to time as a pick me up, a reward, or to celebrate isn’t necessarily unhealthy. But if your first impulse is to go to the refrigerator whenever you’re feeling emotional whether it be happy, upset, angry, alone, anxious, or bored—you can get caught up in an unhealthy cycle where the underlying issue never gets addressed.


Once you’ve gone through the process of identifying your emotional eating triggers, the next step is to establish healthier coping strategies to manage your feelings. Our next blog will focus on Emotional Eating Busters where we will discuss how to eat to fuel your body—not feed your emotions.

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