How To Tell If You’re Truly Hungry or Just Emotional

emotionaleating 599x399 - How To Tell If You're Truly Hungry or Just Emotional

Without a doubt, the biggest issue that I help women with in my health coaching is emotional eating. 

Even if there are other key issues that present themselves initially such as stress, fitness or meal planning, emotional eating lingers in many of us.

Why is this so?

In a nutshell, emotional or restrained eaters over eat in reaction to stress. Boredom, feeling upset or inadequate, or even happiness can create a trigger to deal with our emotions through eating.

Increased intake in emotional eaters is said to relate to escape from self-awareness.¹ From what I have found, food acts as a way of procrastination and avoidance of immediate issues. If practised long enough, can form into unwanted habits over time. 

Two studies, investigated the effect of stress on food choice. Experiment 1 demonstrated experimentally that stress causes changes in food choice away from healthy to less healthy high fat foods (M&Ms), confirming earlier survey research

Experiment 2, a survey study, finds that more women than men report increasing food consumption when stressed. A larger percentage of those who report increasing their food consumption when stressed (71%) are restrained eaters (i.e., dieters) than are people who undereat or who do not change the amount they eat when stressed (35%)².

It’s interesting to note that women are more reactive to emotional responses than men as they have a more analytical than emotional approach when dealing with negative emotions.

The reason dieters are most likely to fall into this category is that over time dieting teaches us to disconnect our bodies from minds. We are taught not to listen to true hunger signals and rather than relying on intuition to know when to eat, we follow unrealistic, non-sustainable meal plans that teach us to rely on others for direction… And hope.

It was found in the study, the foods that the test subjects report overeating when stressed are foods they normally avoid for weight-loss or health reasons (i.e., highly caloric high fat snack foods). They report eating these foods to feel better. Both studies show that stress not only increases consumption in certain people but also shifts their food choice from lower fat to higher fat foods².

As we all know, this ‘feel better’ phenomena of eating comfort foods only usually lasts for a very short amount of time, until guilt, shame and self-worth creep in.  This can often amplify feelings while self-destructive habits continue and form or we promise to ourselves that it will never happen again… Until tomorrow.

Enter the rollercoaster ride that leaves us feeling out of control and helpless.

So what’s the answer?

There’s many strategies that can help, but everyone has their unique triggers. A great place to start is by distinguishing between what is emotional eating and what is true hunger.

How to Distinguish Between True Hunger or Emotional Hunger

Real Hunger

+ Generally bought on by a true need for food and gradually develops over time.  I tell my clients that if you have not eaten a decent meal within the past 3 hours, then it is a high chance it is true hunger.

+ True hunger is not immediate, it can wait if need by, but once your stomach is full (remember it takes 20mins before our brains register this) you can stop eating.

+ Food preference is not important. If you feel a need to eat, any food available will usually satisfy but you will not suffer the feelings of guilt.

Emotional Eating

+ Generally involves a craving for a specific food or group of food ie. usually high in fat and sugar – chocolate, cheese, lollies etc.

+ Emotional hunger is usually in response to a trigger such as a feeling – overhappy, sad, bored, depressed, lonely, confused etc.

+ Once eaten, emotional eating turns into over eating and you continue to eat past comfortably full. Until all the food is gone. There can be a ‘time warp’ occurence that feels like things happen suddenly and out of control

+ Guilt or feelings of ashamed follow.

Another trick is to ask yourself how you rank at the time on a hunger scale. 1 being totally ravenous, eat the tail off a horse kind of thing, or 10 so stuffed you can’t move.  I recommend staying within the 2-5 range. By falling too low we get super hungry and overeat (without consideration of nutrition value) and too high we are over filling our stomachs. I ask my clients to complete a chart specific to this, which also takes note of time, place, food eaten, if it satisfied the cravings and if not what would. Food diaries are also a great tool for keeping in check invisible meals or binges that we may be avoiding dealing with.

By becoming aware of the moment and taking a couple of minutes to remove yourself from the situation by tapping into above questions is an awesome place to start in overcoming overeating, bingeing and dysfunctional eating patterns.


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