How to Distinguish Between Being Truly Hungry or Emotional Hunger

hunger or emotional hunger

As we move out of lockdown and towards regaining some normality in our day, there may be a new habit you have befriended whilst spending time at home.

Increased food intake or emotional eating is said to relate to escapism from self-awareness. It acts as a way of procrastination and avoidance of immediate issues. Whether it’s boredom, feeling upset, or even happiness, dealing with our emotions through eating (and if practised long enough), it forms into habitual patterns or emotional eating. 

Numerous studies have shown foods that test subjects reported overeating when stressed are foods they normally avoid for weight-loss or health reasons (i.e., highly caloric high fat snack foods) in an effort to feel better. Stress not only increases consumption in certain people but also shifts their food choice from lower fat to higher fat foods. A large percentage of those in the studies who reported increasing their food consumption when stressed (71%) were restrained eaters (i.e., dieters) than people who undereat or who do not change the amount they eat when stressed (35%).

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.

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

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

In an effort to overcome or restrict the amount of food eaten, dieting is usually the first port of call.  Unfortunately, dieting, over time installs a disconnect between our needs and thoughts. Restrained eating requires the silencing of hunger signals and rather than relying on intuition to know when to eat, we follow unrealistic, non-sustainable meal plans.

So, what’s the answer?

There are 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 Being Truly Hungry or Emotional Hunger

Real Hunger

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

+ True hunger is not immediate, it can wait if need be, but once your stomach is full (remember it takes 20 mins 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 – over happy, sad, bored, depressed, lonely, confused etc.

+ Once eaten, emotional eating turns into overeating and you continue to eat past comfortably full. Until all the food is gone. There can be a ‘time warp’ occurrence 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 between one and ten. One being totally ravenous, eat the tail off a horse kind, or ten – uncomfortably full.  I recommend staying within the 2-7 range. When we become too hungry, we tend to make rash decisions and overeat (without consideration of nutrition value) and consistently overeating leads to weight gain. Food/feelings diaries are 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 a potentially negatively driven situation and tapping into the above questions is an awesome place to start in overcoming overeating, bingeing, and emotional eating patterns.

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