Emotional hunger, comfort eating, stress binge eating - you may have heard it described in many different ways.
Emotional eating is a very common problem, but it’s difficult to combat. You find yourself gaining weight quickly, and struggle to tell whether you’re really hungry or just craving something. And the guilt and shame afterward never feels good.
In turn, this makes us feel more stressed and upset. So, we eat more, and the cycle begins again. Yet, breaking out of this vicious cycle doesn’t mean sticking to a self-punishing starvation diet. It’s all about understanding the difference between real hunger and emotional hunger. In this article, we’ll talk about how to tell if you’re really hungry, and more importantly, how to stop emotional hunger.
Understanding Physical Hunger
We’re all familiar with hunger pangs. We may start to feel weak or dizzy, and our stomach contracts and rumbles. This is your body telling you to eat something, pronto!
Our bodies are finely tuned machines that work on a variety of cues. For example, your bladder lets you know when you need to go to the bathroom. But hunger cues are even more complicated than that.
It all starts with our hypothalamus in our brain. When we’ve gone too long without food, our blood sugar begins to drop. Noticing the drop, this part of our brain sends a signal to the rest of our body that we’re hungry. When we’ve eaten and we’re full again, the stomach signals to the brain to stop eating.
What is Emotional Hunger?
Emotional hunger is where we eat because we’re bored, stressed, or depressed. It can also be a reaction to something happening in our lives.
It’s worth noting that emotional hunger produces cravings, as opposed to real hunger pangs. We may think that we feel hungry, when in fact we’re eating to soothe our emotions.
For example, you may have a terrible day at work. You’re angry, frustrated, and a little sad. You come home, and all you can think about is ice cream and pizza. So, instead of cooking the balanced, healthy meal you’d planned, you eat ice cream, pizza, and more all evening long.
At the end of the evening, when it’s time to go to bed, you feel bloated and sick. More than that, you feel guilty and bad about yourself. This has an effect on how you feel and act the next day, more than likely causing cravings the next evening, too.
Emotional hunger, or eating to comfort yourself, is a subconscious response to soothe frazzled nerves or lift a low mood. While eating something nice to celebrate or as a treat is just fine, emotional hunger involves overeating and craving sweet, unhealthy foods. In the long run, it won’t make you feel better, it will make you feel worse.
The bottom line: Emotional hunger as a coping mechanism does not work.
How Do You Know If You're Really Hungry?
Cravings can feel very real. But telling real hunger apart from emotional hunger isn’t as difficult as you might think. Here’s a quick checklist.
Signs of Real Hunger:
- You’re hungry for anything
When you’re truly hungry, anything sounds good. You don’t just crave particular foods.
- The feeling comes on gradually
- The feeling stops when you’re full
- There’s no guilt after you’ve eaten
Signs of Emotional Hunger:
- You crave specific foods
Usually, you’ll be hungry for comfort foods or sweet and greasy foods like pizza, ice cream, fries, and so on.
- A sudden feeling, that feels as though it must be satisfied immediately
- The feeling doesn’t stop when you’re full
- A horrible feeling of guilt after you’ve eaten
The point here is that satisfying physical hunger is a natural and enjoyable process. We all love our food, and eating a delicious meal is one of life’s greatest and simplest pleasures.
However, emotional eating takes the pleasure out of food. It traps us in a cycle of overeating and guilt. We need to break that cycle.
How Do You Cure Emotional Hunger
Tackling emotional hunger usually means a war on several fronts. Comfort eating tends to have more than one cause. So, how can you quit using food as your go-to coping mechanism?
Identify Your Triggers
It’s common for things like boredom and stress to trigger emotional hunger. Once you know what your triggers are, you can handle them. For example, if you feel yourself getting bored, have a few backup plans to distract yourself from eating.
If low mood, stress, or anxiety cause your emotional hunger, call a friend to talk. Even something as simple as going for a walk or listening to your favorite song can refocus your emotions and get rid of the fake hunger.
Tackle Your Cravings
This doesn’t mean that you can never eat foods like pizza and ice cream. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t occasionally eat the thing you’re craving. But emotional hunger doesn’t strike occasionally. For many people, it’s a daily struggle.
Force yourself to wait before giving in to your cravings. Emotional hunger cravings tend to fade quickly, whereas real hunger pangs only get more insistent.
If you aren’t sure whether you’re really hungry or emotionally hungry, drink a glass of water before you eat. If you’re truly hungry, the water won’t take off the edge of your cravings. This means that you really are hungry and need to fuel up!
Retrain Your Hunger Cues
Over time, real hunger cues can become muted. This could be because of strict diets or overeating. Either way, our brain isn’t telling us we’re hungry anymore and our stomachs don’t tell us we’re full.
Fortunately, this is temporary. With a balanced diet, your hunger cues will return. Since it takes about twenty minutes for signals to pass between our brain and stomach, it’s good to eat slowly, to give our bodies time to realize that we’re full. Chew every bite and avoid distractions while you eat.
Life After Emotional Hunger
Emotional hunger isn’t about food. It’s about using food to comfort ourselves. The takeaway point here is that you deserve to enjoy a delicious meal - without the painful symptoms of overeating and feelings of guilt.
You may feel terrible about yourself after overeating, but remember that you are not alone. This is a common problem that many people struggle with and have successfully overcome.
You might have relapses at first. Don’t let that get you down. You can do this, and soon emotional hunger will be nothing more than a memory.
If you want to get back on track with your health and back in-tune with your body, try Nosh Detox’s juice fast diets or one of our food programs.