While we don’t tend to think about it much, eating is a highly emotional experience on all levels. Our cultural and family traditions revolve around food. Throughout our lives, these experiences of enjoyable gatherings associated with tasty foods create positive emotional associations which become imprinted in our minds.
Emotional eating begins when we seek out the positive emotions that certain foods elicit in an attempt to calm our negative emotions. These can include loneliness, sadness, anger, boredom or any other emotion we’d rather not be feeling.
Emotional eaters tend to choose ‘comfort foods’ when they’re feeling low. In the US, macaroni and cheese or buttery mashed potatoes and fried chicken are considered comfort foods. Ice cream, chocolate and sweets in general are also comfort foods for many women.
Comfort foods tend to be high in sugar, fat or both. As if the positive mental and cultural associations weren’t enough, there is research to show that these types of foods can be addictive, and that they actually alter our brain chemistry.
There are a few key differences that separate emotional hunger from physical hunger. Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if you may be an emotional eater, excerpted from this article on caloriecount.com
1) Is your stomach growling?
Physical hunger has physiological cues, the easiest of which to recognize are a feeling of emptiness and growling in the stomach. If these are not present, but you feel a strong urge to eat, it’s likely that your hunger is emotional.
2) Did your hunger come on suddenly or was it gradual?
Physiological hunger comes on gradually whereas emotional hunger can start out of nowhere and feel urgent very quickly.
3) Will a plate of broccoli, chicken and brown rice satisfy your hunger right now?
If your current sensation of hunger is based in craving a specific food, you’re experiencing emotional hunger. When we are physiologically hungry, any nutritious food that will fill us up looks good at the moment. Emotional hunger creates cravings for specific foods that can only be satisfied by eating that food in that moment.
4) Do you tend to keep eating even after you’re full?
Emotional eating does not recognize the physiological signs of fullness. Rather, an emotional eater keeps eating until they become numb to the negative emotion that triggered their desire to eat. Emotional eating doesn’t allow the person to be in tune with their body’s signals because they are eating to fill an emotional need rather than a physical one.
5) Do you feel guilty after eating?
Emotional eaters are driven to eat in order to numb negative feelings. Once they’ve finished eating, guilt and remorse often replace the original negative emotion. In contrast, when you eat in response to true physiological hunger, you feel no guilt because you ate to nourish your body.
First and foremost, if you believe you have difficulties with emotional eating consider seeing a counselor or other specialist who may be able to help you work through the issues. It is very possible to stop emotional eating, but it can take a strong commitment and some time to do. Here are a few suggestions to help deal with emotional eating, excerpted from helpguide.com:
1) Recognize Your Triggers
Begin by asking yourself questions 1 – 3 above each time you feel hunger. Over time you’ll begin to recognize the difference between emotional and physiological hunger. When you do identify that your hunger is emotional, work to identify the negative emotions you may be trying to cover up with food. Recognizing your emotional triggers for eating is the first step.
2) Find Healthy Ways To Deal With Your Feelings
When you recognize that you’re experiencing emotional hunger, try to find other healthy ways to deal with your emotions in that moment. If you’re lonely or bored, call a friend or family member or play with a pet. If your trigger is stress, anxiety or exhaustion, take a moment of time for yourself to take a brisk walk, listen to soothing music, take a bath or even treat yourself to a massage. Taking time for yourself is important, and getting involved in a hobby that you love can be a great help, too.
3) Wait 5 Minutes
When you experience strong cravings, wait 5 minutes before giving in. Take these minutes to ask yourself what emotions or problems might be causing your craving in this moment in time. Work to accept and experience your emotions rather than trying to cover them up. Even if you do eat after the 5 minutes are up, over time this exercise can help you to identify and deal with negative emotions instead of treating them with food.
4) Make Healthy Living A Priority
Supporting and nurturing yourself by living a healthy lifestyle can help beat depression and encourages you to make healthier choices all the time – even when you’re upset. Make daily exercise, getting a full 8 hours of restorative sleep and connecting with friends and family a priority in your life. Be sure to make time for relaxation and to participate in hobbies and activities you love.
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