The Secret to Ending Emotional Eating

Do you tend to veg out when you are frustrated, sad, lonely, or bored? Do you find yourself eating more when you are stressed? Do you often over-eat to a point of being uncomfortable? Do you notice yourself eating when you are not hungry? Do you think food is your friend that comforts you?

If you’ve answered yes to any of the questions above, you may be an emotional eater. Emotional eating is defined as an attempt to alleviate and deal with stress and emotions by consuming food.1 If this sounds like you, you’re not alone! How many times have you watched a scene in a movie where a character overindulges in ice cream or other sugary foods after an emotional event, such as a break up?

Using food to cope is a very common behavior in our society, but it can be emotionally stressful and draining. This behavior is more common in overweight and obese women, which can make it even more difficult to maintain a healthy weight.2 If you are also managing your blood sugars, you can imagine that overeating for emotional reasons can make it really tough! Are you ready to let go of food as a coping tool, and bring healthier habits into your life? First you need to understand the true meaning of hunger!

To really understand and overcome emotional eating, it is important to be able to recognize what physical hunger feels like. Hunger signals us to eat to nourish our body with the nutrients and energy that it needs. If you are not feeling hunger signals, you probably don’t need food at the moment. As simple as this sounds, this concept can be very difficult to follow for an emotional eater. You may be out of touch with your body’s hunger cues, which makes it hard to identify when you are eating emotionally versus in response to true hunger.

Here’s what true physical hunger generally feels like:

  • Growling, feeling of emptiness, or even pain in your stomach.
  • Comes on slowly.
  • The hunger stops when you are comfortably full.
  • Tends not to be specific. Any types of foods are appealing to you.
  • You don’t feel guilty or bad about yourself after eating.

Here’s what appetite feels like:

  • It’s the desire for food, and it can be elicited from thinking of food or seeing food.
  • Your mouth may water.
  • It’s a learned behavior –and sometimes your appetite can go against your better judgment of what your body really needs.

Many of us are so out of touch with our own body’s hunger cues that it may be difficult to identify whether you are experiencing a true hunger or appetite triggered by factors other than physiological needs. It may help to start questioning yourself whenever you have the desire to eat - is this physical hunger or just cravings? For example, when you have a strong craving for a specific food that comes on suddenly, this may be an emotional desire for food, rather than a physical one. Remember, hunger comes on slowly, as mentioned above.

So if you find that you’re only hungry for sweets, something fatty, or something salty, but a piece of fruit or a salad doesn’t seem appetizing, chances are you don’t need something to eat. Take a tall drink of water or have some tea, go for a short walk, or take a timed nap (always make sure your blood sugar is at a safe level) –and see if the craving passes. Each time you tune into true hunger and tune out your appetite responses –your cravings will come less often. The next time you are are feeling the urge to eat because of your emotions –stop, recognize the behavior, and choose an alternative activity that serves your health goals. If you find you are still eating to soothe your emotions or in response to stress, read Steps to Break the Cycle of Emotional Eating to discover the best tips for both situations.

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