We are so far removed from our natural ways of eating that the line between eating for hunger and nutrition and for pleasure or to satisfy an emotional need has become blurred.
Back when food choices were less abundant and there were not so many snacks, people would be more aware of their hunger and eat to satisfy it.
These days, we confuse our bodies by rarely letting our bodies get hungry or by ignoring hunger cues completely. We eat sporadically and with our stressed out busy lifestyles, use food as comfort, for pleasure and even to punish ourselves.
It is not always easy to understand the difference between emotional and physical hunger. It can be quite confusing as the two can overlap.
In last week’s article I wrote about intuitive eating and how it means knowing your body well enough to know when it’s hungry, but also knowing when it’s full.
This week I am going to look at the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
The more we bring a healthy awareness to our eating and how we are feeling, the better we get at identifying when we are really hungry and giving the body the nutrition it needs.
I would like to point out that if eating a bowl of ice cream after a stressful day makes you feel good, there is nothing wrong with that. Emotional eating becomes a problem when it’s the only coping tool we have.
In order to break free from emotional eating, we need to understand the difference between emotional and physical hunger.
What is physical hunger?
Physical Hunger is when the brain signals the stomach that we are hungry. It is signalling a physical need for food and energy.
Our bodies need a certain amount of calories to function alongside all the minerals, vitamins, proteins, fats, water, carbs and fibre working together to service all the bodies’ various functions. When we are not getting enough of that, our brain will send signals we are hungry.
What are the signs of physical hunger?
The signs of physical hunger include:
- Stomach growling, grumbling or feeling empty.
- The hunger comes on gradually.
- It stops when we are full.
- Our hunger doesn’t make us feel bad as we are eating to satisfy physical hunger.
- You experience low energy.
- Your body or hands may shake.
- You have a headache and/or problems focusing.
- You feel anxiety and irritability (hangry).
If we ignore these signs, we will end up binging on whatever is in front of us or reaching for high fat and sugar foods in order to ‘keep going’.
What is emotional hunger?
Emotional Hunger is when we turn to food to cope with our emotions, stress, boredom, or exhaustion. Certain situations, an intense emotion, or feeling results in the response of reaching for food to make us feel better.
The problem is, emotional eating means we tend to reach for foods which are not particularly good for us, like junk food, sweets, and pastries.
Just think for a moment – do you reach for biscuits or ice cream when you’re feeling down? Or order in a takeaway if you’re bored or lonely, or after a stressful day at work? This is emotional eating. It’s choosing food based on your emotions rather than what the body needs. It’s using food to make yourself feel better.
Equally, this can happen with good emotions as well. We can use food to celebrate something. Think again, have your ever said, ‘let’s get a takeaway or go out to dinner to celebrate’?
The occasional use of food as a pick-me-up, reward, or to celebrate isn’t a bad thing. It’s when it becomes the primary way you eat that it can become a problem, causing health or weight problems.
If we are choosing the wrong kind of foods based on emotions, it can often make us feel worse after, perpetuating the spiral of emotional eating. That’s because emotional hunger can’t be filled with food. Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. It’s the taste and food experience we are craving, not the physical nourishment of the food.
What are the signs of emotional hunger?
Signs of emotional hunger include the following:
- You have urges to satisfy it straightaway.
- It comes on as suddenly.
- You crave specific foods that you consider comfort foods.
- You do not feel satisfied even when you have a full stomach.
- The eating triggers feelings of guilt and shame.
Becoming aware of emotional eating triggers
In order to learn to know the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger, we need to get to know our bodies and triggers.
Start to become aware of your triggers, those moments when you are reaching for food. If you are about to order a takeaway for the third time in the week, ask yourself why? What’s actually going on? How are you feeling in that moment?
If you can, keep a journal and write it down. Notice what situations, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food.
Are there some leftover childhood habits at play? Did your parents ever use food as a reward or to make you feel better or as an incentive?
How to break the pattern of emotional eating
Note that becoming aware of what you are eating and what is triggering it is not about obsessing over food or what you are eating. This is not healthy either.
- Start to keep a diary to track how you are feeling and what you are eating. When you notice the tiggers put some processes in place to manage them. For example, ‘when I am feeling lonely I will call a friend for a chat’, or ‘if I am feeling bored I will chose to do something to engage my brain’.
- Aim to eat at regular mealtimes. Eating a balanced, nutritious diet will not only satisfy physical hunger, it will make you feel better and improve your energy and mood, which in turn will help with negative emotions.
- Pause and count to five before you reach for that snack. Check in with yourself – are you actually hungry? What’s going on? So much behaviour is automatic. When we mindfully pause, we can catch ourselves and make a better choice.
- Talk to someone. If comfort eating is becoming a problem you may want to deal with the root of the emotions. You can get help from a qualified therapist or wellness practitioner.
- Get rid of the guilt. If you read my intuitive eating blog you will see that it’s about trusting your body to make food choices that feel good for you. You stop viewing food as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and you have a no diet approach to nutrition, which means no restrictions. Trust yourself to make the right choices.
If you need some help to break the emotional eating spiral then get in touch. I work with women in their 40s and beyond to feel and look great with more vitality and energy.