“Stressed is DESSERTS spelled backward.”

– An ironic truth that has been turned into a refrigerator magnet…

Eating and nourishing our bodies are a part of the human experience. And as a dietitian, I recognize that there are times when not every nutrition choice is driven by physical hunger. For instance, my birthday was a couple weekends ago… you think that carrot cake cupcake (that I look forward to every year) was a response to my stomach growling?? Hard no. Definitely not. That was sheer bliss and an intentional choice to indulge and celebrate. So that I did. And enjoyed every flippin’ bite. But that was definitely not driven by physical hunger.

This is all well and good when it is from time to time and done consciously. However, eating based on emotions, in which the emotions override conscious choosing, can have undesired effects, if left unchecked over time. If your goals around weight management, eliminating food sensitivities or even simply balanced eating are not being met, you may consider taking a look at any emotional eating patterns that might be bubbling below the surface of your food choices.

How emotional eating works

This may seem like a Captain Obvious explanation but to tackle emotional eating, this needs to be understood. At its most simple, emotional eating works like this:

  1. A situation or event happens (example: stressful work meeting), you interact with a specific person (example: your boss), or you are in a specific environment (example: at home, finally, after a long day at work).
  2. You feel the feel.
  3. In response to the emotion, you eat the thing(s).

Emotions are not inherently good or bad. In fact, being able to experience the whole spectrum of emotions is what makes us human! It’s when we attach a behavior to these emotions that is counter-productive to our health goals that there becomes an issue.

So how do we figure out when, how, and where we are emotionally eating? Ask yourself these questions and see it applied to the more extreme [but relatable] scenario below.

Questions to ask yourself to identify emotional hunger

1. Did this desire for food come on all of a sudden?

We’ve all been there. You get out of a rough meeting feeling frustrated, stressed, and not super pleased with the outcome. You walk past the break room, see the doughnuts brought in that morning and without even thinking, find yourself desperately deciding between the chocolate eclair and the cute one with the sprinkles. Or both. Today is the day for doughnuts. Bring. Them. On. You didn’t know today was going to be the day for doughnuts, but dammit, it is.

Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on gradually. Rarely does it just sneak up on you. Physiologically, we do not go from 0 to 100 in 2.5 seconds. Cue into this gradual hunger using your Hunger-Fullness Scale.

2. Is the desire for food urgent?

Must eat the doughnuts and must eat them now! This, my friends, is emotional hunger at its finest. The false sense of urgency. This sense of urgency, that without stopping to question it,  can override other logical or intentional thinking.

Again, physical hunger takes its sweet time. It doesn’t require you to listen to it immediately.  The patience of a saint, that physical hunger.

3. Am I a craving a very specific food?

You want doughnuts. Not carrots. Not almonds. Not an apple. (All of which are at your desk, ready for strategic snacking.) You want doughnuts and you will settle for nothing less than doughnuts. Also, our stress response is pretty smart. It is looking to quick energy, like doughnuts to prepare for flight or fight.

Physical hunger is easy to please. It wants real, wholesome food. In the appropriate amounts. Physical hunger is not particular and can be satisfied with any number of foods.

4. Am I feeling physical signs of hunger?

A grumbling stomach and that dull ache of needing to refuel are actual hunger signals. Cue into these and other physical signs using your Hunger-Fullness Scale. If you are not responding to these signals and choosing to eat, there are likely emotions involved.

5. Do I truly feel satisfied?

I realize this one is pretty reactive but it can be very telling and help inform patterns. Because we are not filling a physical hunger need, we can’t really fill an emotional hunger with food. We will likely still feel the emotion that catalyzed the eating in the first place, which in this scenario is the residual stress or unrest from the meeting.

Start to pay attention to your response to this question and notice which emotions are tied to your patterns. You might be surprised with what you find. For me, being over-excited about something is often my emotional hunger trigger. Who would have thought, eh?

How to break the pattern

As I stated earlier, eating due to a celebration of community or to simply consciously indulge are a part of being human. However, if you are finding that you are feeling less than conscious or have some guilt around your nutrition choices on a frequent basis, you may consider taking a deeper look at your personal emotional eating patterns. And utilize these strategies:

  • Build general awareness of your emotions. Check in with yourself from time to time to ask yourself “How am I feeling at this very moment?” and “In general, how am I doing today?” Simply building general emotional awareness can make it easier to identify patterns and anticipate them before they happen.
  • Keep tempting foods out of sight, out of mind. If you are having an especially vulnerable day, don’t walk past the candy dish on so-and-so’s desk. Put the doughnuts in the fridge. Remove the temptations…which also means, don’t bring them into your home.
  • Distract yourself. A craving lasts anywhere from 5-8 minutes. So if you can remove yourself from the situation and go for a walk, talk on the phone, doodle, ANYTHING for the next 5-8 minutes, there’s a good chance you will be able to make a sounder choice when you return.
  • Keep a food log. This is not meant for counting calories. This is meant to capture what you are eating, when, how much, the situation around the food, and the emotions before and after eating. While I am not a fan of food logging for counting calories, I am a fan of using this as a tool to build awareness and identify patterns. What emotions are tied to eating for you? And once you have identified the emotion, get to the root cause (see below).
  • Get to the root cause. As I mentioned earlier, food isn’t going to satisfy emotional hunger so it is necessary to get to the root cause of the emotion. What was the stimulus – the situation, person, environment – that brought on the emotion? How does that need to be addressed and dealt with? Given our examples above, how could we better decompress after the stressful meeting? Or better yet, not get so worked up in the first place? Can we create a better dialogue with a boss to deal with conflict? Or go for a walk to wind down and create emotional space after a long day rather than raid the pantry?
  • Build self-care and stress management into your daily routine. Taking time to destress, decompress, and create emotional space throughout the day is NOT selfish, it is 100% necessary. And doing so is ultimately going to help you navigate your emotions in a more productive way. Try to build any of these strategies into your day:
    • Creative walking breaks at work.
    • Stepping away from your desk for lunch.
    • Try daily meditation, even if only for 2-5 minutes. And if the concept of meditation scares you or seems intimidating, try using an app like Headspace, Calm, or Stop, Breath, & Think.
    • Curate time for a creative outlet or hobby at home – music, dance, cooking, painting, doodling, coloring, macrame…whatever floats your boat!
    • Prioritize sleep. Adults generally need seven to nine hours…give yourself a bedtime!
    • Schedule time to talk with your support network – friends, family, mentors, etc. – who can help build you up, act as a sounding board, and gather perspective.
    • Enlist a therapist, a third party individual, who can objectively (and professionally) help you navigate your emotions.

NOTE: If your issue with emotional eating stems deeper, or you find yourself engaging in disordered eating behaviors such as bingeing, purging, destructive or debilitating emotions attached to your eating experiences, you need to seek out the care and guidance of a professional. For more information, visit the National Eating Disorders Association website.

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