emotional eating hunger

emotional eating | how are you hungry?

In the style of health coaching I practice, Integrative Nutrition®, we talk a lot about primary and secondary foods. The majority of my clients come to me because they believe they need to “fix” their food choices—although more often than not, it’s really about emotional eating.

Yes, there may certainly be some serious changes to make in the area of food choices—and I like to tell them what a former client told me was her big AHA moment: “It’s the food. And it’s more than the food.”

As a coach, I do a lot of workshops, many of them about the food we put in our mouths and others about the other things in our lives that nourish us (or don’t): career, relationships, physical activity, spiritual practices, etc.

And in the workshops about how to best nourish yourself through secondary food, the question of emotional eating inevitably comes up, even if it isn’t phrased using those words, “emotional eating.”

emotional eating

It’s all well and good to talk about the best secondary food choices, but what if you just can’t make the better choice most of the time or you can’t control (or you overly restrict) the amount of food you ingest, whether it’s better- or poorer- choice foods?

Emotional eating is best defined as using food for a purpose other than nourishment or satiation:

  • Food becomes a coping mechanism for emotions you don’t want to feel.
  • You employ food to feel better, self-soothe, numb, or fill a void.
  • You use food to feel some sense of control.

If you use food in one (or more) of these ways, we’ll probably spend way more time digging into your primary foods—because a disharmony in that area is often what is making your relationship with secondary food unhealthy.

As I like to say, if you hate your job, your boss is a jerk, and your coworkers drive you crazy, you are probably the one standing in front of the open freezer door emptying a pint of ice cream from the container—and no, all of the green kale smoothies in the world are not going to help you stop doing that.

it starts with awareness

Whether we’re working on the food you put in your mouth or your primary foods, I usually recommend that you start with simply noticing your choices over the space of a few weeks. No need to do anything about them just yet—just notice them, preferably in a journal, whether it’s real or digital.

Yes, that’s rather ironic coming from me: I am NOT a fan of journaling even though (or maybe because) I’m told it’s something I “should” do regularly. I’m positively miserable at it—and miserable while doing it.

So I get it if you resist the idea. Luckily, it’s not something I require long-term—it’s just so we can get a picture of your patterns.

The prompts I ask you to journal about are these:

  • When you face a particular choice, what was happening directly before you were faced with it? How were you feeling (physically, mentally, emotionally, energetically)?
  • What did you choose to do, and how did you feel while you were doing it?
  • How did you feel afterwards?

If we’re focusing on emotional eating, the first pattern to identify is what is going on when you experience hunger.

how are you hungry?

(You read that right: I’m not asking my teenage son, “How hungry are you?” or “How are you hungry again?” I’m asking about your experience of hunger.)

The distinctions between physical and emotional hunger are fascinating, so if you want to give journaling a try, consider this:

physical hunger

  • Physical hunger arises gradually in response to your body.
  • It indicates that you are connected to your body’s signals.
  • It can (eventually) be satisfied, so we stop eating.
  • Taking action on it—eating—can be delayed if necessary.
  • It’s satisfied by a wide variety of foods: you look in the fridge and everything looks good!
  • It doesn’t spark negative feelings before, during, or after you eat.

emotional hunger

  • Emotional hunger starts suddenly in response to the mind/emotions.
  • It indicates a disconnection from your body’s signals: you are ignoring your body’s message that it’s full—or at least it’s not hungry.
  • It feels insatiable: you aren’t able to stop eating even when your body signals that it’s full.
  • It wants instant gratification.
  • It makes you crave specific foods or food combinations: you look in the stocked fridge, and nothing in there will do.
  • It’s often accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame, or powerlessness.

jot it down

Knowing those differences, catch yourself when you’re reaching for food and try to figure out why you’re eating—how you’re hungry. You don’t have to stop eating the food you’re reaching for—just notice whether it’s from physical or emotional hunger.

If it’s emotional hunger, the next level is to ask yourself what happened to trigger the hunger—and that’s the topic of next week’s blog post!

make the connection

For this week, try noticing how you are hungry—physically or emotionally. If you only reach for food to satisfy physical hunger, that’s wonderful news! If you tend to eat in response to emotional hunger, make sure to tune in next week for the sequel!

And if emotional eating is something you would like support with, make sure to schedule a free consultation.