Emotional Eating or Physical Hunger? A Dietitian’s Guide.
Today I’m a registered dietitian but I USED to be a big time emotional eater. How do I know it was emotional hunger and not physical hunger I was filling?
The number one reason people eat emotionally is to distract, avoid or numb out a difficult or uncomfortable emotion.
For me that was the overwhelming feeling of grief that I endured when I suddenly lost my father at age 13.
Ask yourself when you are sad, angry, overwhelmed, or anxious what do you do to cope?? Where do you go?
If you feel ill-equipped to identify your feelings, process them and then act in an appropriate and helpful manner, you too may fall victim to emotional eating.
Emotional eaters are oftentimes overweight because when we consume calories and we are not physically hungry, this is when we put ourselves at risk to gain weight AND to feel guilt, shame, remorse for what we just ate. There’s a physical toll but also a mental one to emotional eating.
If you are to beat emotional eating, you must be able to distinguish between being physically hungry and being triggered to eat due to an emotion. You have to catch it as soon as you have the urge.
I’m going to give you 5 differences in physical hunger and emotional hunger. This will help you realize what you are doing BEFORE you eat and give you a chance to make a different choice.
Number 1 – Physical hunger comes on gradually. Emotional hunger is sudden.
Physical hunger grows over time. Hunger may start out with an empty stomach. Then it grows to a stomach growl. Then it progresses to irritability and a slight headache.
Emotional hunger is usually sudden. It happens when you are hit with the feeling, don’t know how to respond, and quickly desire to check out by distracting with food. You will feel like you have to eat NOW.
Number 2 – Physical hunger starts in stomach. Emotional hunger is in the mind.
If you stop right now and ask yourself if you are physically hungry, how do you decide?? Physical hunger always starts in the stomach, so focus there. Emotional hunger has little to do with the stomach. Physical symptoms of hunger are irrelevant. Emotional eating brings out thoughts such as
“I’m sad but getting some takeout Chinese food will make me feel better.”
“Eating is the only thing that makes me happy and right now I need to feel better about this situation.”
Number 3 – Physical hunger does not result in guilt. Emotional hunger often does.
If your stomach is growling, you eat until you are full, and then you stop…why would you feel guilty?
But if you eat 4 donuts when you just had 2 for breakfast an hour ago you feel guilty. That little voice in your head tells you that this is a poor choice. When you do it anyway, guilt is sure to follow.
Number 4 – Physical hunger stops when full. Emotional hunger keeps on eating.
If you eat because you are hungry, it’s easy to stop when you are full.
If you eat to numb out or avoid an emotion, the longer you can eat the better. So you may end up eating an entire box of cookies. Or making a pie from scratch and eating half of it. Emotional eating does not care about hunger/fullness cues.
Number 5 – Physical hunger is patient. Emotional hunger is more urgent.
Let’s say you are in a meeting and there is 30 more minutes until you break for lunch. Your stomach growls. This is your body saying that it would prefer to be nourished now, but it can wait. You won’t pass out.
When you eat due to an emotion, the hunger will be urgent. It will be all you can think about. The reason for this is because the alternative is to sit with the uncomfortable feeling. The quicker you distract with food, the better.
Hopefully, now you see a clear difference between eating due to emotion or eating when you are physically hungry. In an ideal world we would only eat when physically hungry.
What if you now see that you engage in emotional eating more than you would like?
The cure for emotional hunger is to deal with the emotion in a healthy way. This is called emotional intelligence. This means you can easily identify your feelings/emotions as they arise. You can regulate them, process them and act appropriately. This is not easy and it is not cured by reading a book, watching a video or by just trying harder. It takes reflection, time and practice.
Take my Free 5 day challenge (link to sign up here) if you are sick and tired of being sick and tired. It starts by identifying how you got to this point. How did you learn that eating was a good way to deal with your feelings? We do that in day 1 of the challenge.
A few more resources for you:
I have videos that will help if you are triggered to eat when you are bored: Link here
Also, here’s a video on anxiety and overeating that you will find helpful.
Til next time, stay healthy.
If you want to see the full YouTube video on this topic, click here.
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