I would say 9 out of 10 of the people that I work with tell me that they are emotional eaters. When I dig deeper I find that although this might be true from time to time, often, they are simply confusing emotional hunger with physical hunger.
Now here’s the thing – it is not that physical hunger is good and emotional hunger is bad, they just have different solutions. So, it is important to identify which type of hunger you are dealing with so you know how to solve it.
Next time you are worried that you are emotionally eating, ask yourself these 5 questions to figure out if you are simply hungry.
Where do you feel your hunger?
Physical hunger is usually felt below the neck and emotional hunger is above the neck.
How quickly did your hunger come on?
Physical hunger is gradual, while emotional hunger is sharp and sudden.
Do you have a specific craving, or do you just want to eat?
Physical hunger can be satisfied by multiple types of food. You may even have a hard time deciding what sounds good to you. Emotional hunger is very specific and can even be obsessive in nature. Think: If I don’t have piece of chocolate right now life is not worth living!
When did you last eat?
Physical hunger is driven by time, meaning time has passed since your last meal. Now, this is working under the assumption that your meal was large enough and had a satisfying source of protein and fiber. Emotional hunger is triggered by either an upsetting event or a specific or ritualistic time of day. For instance, I always crave a sweet after dinner.
Are you able to stop eating?
If you are eating slowly and paying attention, you are able to stop when you are full if your hunger is physical. Emotional hunger is more insatiable often leading to eating to the point of being uncomfortable or sick.
Now, here is the important part – emotional eating is not all bad. Let’s be honest – it works! If anyone says that it doesn’t, I’m calling them out as a liar. I’m not saying it is a long-term solution, but if you have had a crappy day and want to feel good, indulging in your favorite food is an effective way to feel better. So if you turn to that, there is nothing wrong with you! If it happens occasionally, please don’t worry about it. You will not sabotage your health or weight goals with a more indulgent meal from time to time. I promise.
The problem occurs when this becomes your go-to solution. You see, emotions are our most powerful clue that you have a need that has to be addressed. Although food may help you to feel better in the interim (and that is OK) it will not solve the root problem. It is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. It may protect from infection for a short time, but if you don’t actually treat the wound it is going to turn into something potentially debilitating.
Alternatively, sometimes we try to restrict our go-to emotional eating food to protect ourselves from the situation. Again, this might help temporarily but you still have not addressed the root problem and I promise at some point you will figure out a way to get the ice cream, get the chips, etc. and still be stuck in a shame cycle.
So the next time you find yourself in an emotional eating situation, I want you to first ask yourself the 5 questions above to determine if it was physical hunger. If you find that it was, in fact, emotional hunger the next step is to determine the need that has to be addressed. Although beating yourself up or restricting may be tempting, determining the root cause is the only long-term solution.
If you found this blog helpful you may be interested in my upcoming course The Hunger Solution. It is launching in a few weeks so enter your email below to be the first to be notified. In the meantime I will send you my free Effective Nutrition QuickStart Guide so you can start feeling better today!