While food fuels your muscles, it also feeds your feelings. When eating is triggered by an emotion rather than physiological hunger, it’s known as ‘emotional eating’. It comes at a cost to your health and here are some of the causes, dangers and solutions.
Emotional hunger Emotional eating is distinctly different from physical hunger. It strikes suddenly, whereas the rumblings of physiological hunger occur gradually. Emotional hunger is a psychological need to fill a void and generally involves a craving for a specific food, i.e., a ‘comfort food’. On the other hand, physiological hunger can be satisfied by any variety of foods and isn’t focused on one particular item.
Comfort Foods Comfort foods are foods that you crave to obtain a good feeling when you’re in a negative mood, such as when you’re angry or depressed. But you may also reach for comfort foods to sustain good, positive emotions, such as when you’re happy, relieved or elated. Comfort foods become dangerous when they’re unhealthy choices. The most popular comfort foods for women are ice cream, chocolate and cookies, whereas men tend to gravitate towards pizza, steak, casserole, and chips.
Satiety When physiological hunger is satisfied, you’re more likely to stop eating, whereas when you’re eating to satisfy an emotional need, you’re more likely to continue eating past the point of being full. Emotional overeating often results in feelings of guilt and defeat if you’re trying to lose weight. These feelings can trigger yet another emotional eating binge.
The Dangers When you’re eating emotionally and not when you physiologically need food, you’ll tend to consume more calories than your body needs. If these extra calories aren’t used, they’ll be stored as fat which can eventually lead to health problems, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Managing Your Emotions Children who are given food as a reward or to cope with emotions, such as cookies or ice cream to ‘cheer them up’, never learn to manage their emotions. When food becomes their friend and their only strategy to resolve emotional distress, they risk the associated dangers of overeating and unhealthy eating.
Know Your Triggers Take ownership of your emotions and health. Dealing with emotions is a skill that’s learned. Triggers often include: loneliness, boredom, sadness, fear, frustration, stress, depression, deprivation, anxiety, shame, lack of control, avoidance, and defeat. When you have the urge to eat emotionally, consider the following alternatives to cope:
- Express your emotions rather than shove them down with food. Call a friend of write about your feelings in a journal.
- Get physical or productive. Go for a walk/jog, play with your pet or play a game, or work out at the gym. (Exercise helps release endorphins that trigger feelings of well-being.) Wash the car, clean house, do laundry, work in the garden, or redecorate a room.
- Calm yourself. Do yoga/meditation.
- Seek help. Individual or group counseling may be effective in coping with emotional stress.
- Find ways to have fun and laugh.
Be Aware of Your Behavior Be careful not to substitute your emotional coping mechanism (eating) with one that can lead to another negative out-of-control (addictive) behavior, such as shopping, drugs/alcohol, or gambling.
Solutions The solution to emotional eating is to first recognize it as well as identify a pattern. The next time you have the urge to eat:
- Stop and ask yourself if you’re physically hungry.
- Then rate your level of hunger on a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being ravenous and 1 being barely hungry).
- Next, rate your mood. Are you happy, sad, lonely, bored, stressed, etc.?
- Then note what food you’re craving.
This exercise will help you identify whether your need to eat is emotional or physiological, which emotions trigger you to eat, and which emotions are associated with particular foods.
Exercise control It’s not necessary to completely eliminate comfort foods from your eating plan. Eat them in moderation. If you can satisfy a craving with a few spoonfuls of ice cream versus a whole pint, then that’s okay. The key is to learn how to manage your emotions and control the cravings.