Emotional hunger starts in your mind, not your body.
When you're happy, your food of choice could be steak or pizza, when you're sad it could be ice cream or cookies, and when you're bored it could be potato chips. Food does more than fill our stomachs -- it also satisfies our feelings, and when you quench those feelings with comfort food when your stomach isn't growling, well that's emotional eating.
Emotional eating is the practice of consuming large quantities of food -- usually "comfort" or junk foods -- in response to feelings instead of hunger. Experts estimate that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions.
Many of us learn that food can bring comfort, at least in the short-term. As a result, we often turn to food to heal emotional problems. Eating becomes a habit preventing us from learning skills that can effectively resolve our emotional distress. When we are able to identify what triggers our emotional eating, we can substitute more appropriate techniques to manage our emotional problems.
How to Tell the Difference
There are several differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger:
- Emotional hunger comes on suddenly; physical hunger occurs gradually.
- When you are eating to fill a void that isn't related to an empty stomach, you crave a specific food, such as pizza or ice cream, and only that food will meet your need. When you eat because you are actually hungry, you're open to other food options.
- Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly with the food you crave; physical hunger can wait.
- You're more likely to keep eating, even when you are full, if you're eating to satisfy an emotional need. When you're eating because you're hungry, you're more likely to stop when you're full.
- Emotional eating can leave behind feelings of guilt or shame; eating when you are physically hungry does not.
Stress– When stress is chronic, which happens a lot in our fast-paced world, it leads to high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. This hormone triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and high-fat foods—foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief without even realizing it.
Stuffing Emotions – Eating can be a way to temporarily silence uncomfortable emotions, including anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame. While you’re numbing yourself with food, you can avoid the emotions you’d rather not feel.
It's important to keep in mind that while most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, it can also be triggered by positive emotions, such as rewarding yourself for achieving a goal or celebrating a holiday or happy event.
Boredom or Feelings of Emptiness – Do you ever eat simply to give yourself something to do or as a way to fill a void in your life? In the moment, It fills you up and distracts you from underlying feelings of uselessness and dissatisfaction with your life.
Childhood Habits – Think back to your childhood memories of food. Did your parents reward good behavior with ice cream, take you out for pizza when you got a good report card, or serve you sweets when you were feeling sad? Or maybe some of your eating is driven by cherished memories of baking and eating cookies with your mom, or gathering around the table with your extended family for a special home-cooked meal.
Social influences – It’s easy to overindulge simply because the food is there, everyone else is eating, or out of nervousness. Maybe your family or circle of friends encourage you to overeat.
To identify what triggers excessive eating in you, Keep a food diary that records what and when you eat as well as what stressors, thoughts, or emotions you identify as you eat. You should begin to identify patterns to your excessive eating fairly quickly.
In order to stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally. It’s not enough to understand the cycle of emotional eating or even to understand your triggers, although that’s a huge first step. You need alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfillment.
Alternatives to Emotional Eating
If you’re depressed or lonely
, call someone who always makes you feel better, play with your dog or cat, or look at a favorite photo. (Elevation Blend, Frankincense, any citrus oil)
If you’re anxious
, expend your nervous energy by dancing to your favorite song, squeezing a stress ball, or taking a brisk walk. (Adaptiv Blend, Lavender, Wild Orange, Lemon, Serenity Blend, Balance Blend, Breathe Blend
If you’re exhausted,
treat yourself with a hot cup of green tea, take a bath, give yourself a 10-15 minute break of meditation/zoning out. (Lavender or Ylang Ylang with Lemon or Sandalwood
If you’re bored
, read a good book, watch a comedy show, explore the outdoors, or turn to an activity you enjoy such as gardening, playing an instrument, scrap-booking, etc. (Wild Orange, Lime, Clove, Ginger, Lemongrass, Vetiver, Peppermint
Wait 5 minutes before you give in to a craving. Emotional eating tends to be automatic and virtually mindless. But if you can take a moment to pause and reflect when you’re hit with a craving, you give yourself the opportunity to make a different decision. All you have to do is put off eating for five minutes, have a glass of water if five minutes seems unmanageable. Don’t tell yourself you can’t give in to the craving; remember, the forbidden is extremely tempting. Just tell yourself to wait. While you’re waiting, check in with yourself. How are you feeling? What’s going on emotionally? Even if you end up eating, you’ll have a better understanding of why you did it. This can help you set yourself up for a different response next time.
Learn to accept your feelings-all kinds. Many time we think that the core problem is that we’re powerless over food, when actually, emotional eating stems from feeling powerless over your emotions.
Allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions can be scary. You may fear that, like Pandora’s box, once you open the door you won’t be able to shut it. But the truth is that when we don’t obsess over or suppress our emotions, even the most painful and difficult feelings do subside and lose their power to control our attention. To do this you need to become mindful and learn how to stay connected to your moment-to-moment emotional experience. This can enable you to rein in stress and repair emotional problems that often trigger emotional eating.
Your life will be richer when you open yourself up emotionally. Our feelings help us understand and discover our deepest desires and fears, our current frustrations, and the things that will make us happy.
Supporting yourself with Healthy Lifestyle Habits will help you to better be able to handle whatever life inevitably throws your way.
How do you deal with emotional eating? Leave a comment below.
Blessings for Health, Joy & Laughter,