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Decode Your Hunger: Understanding Emotional Eating

Blog Image: Decode Your Hunger: Understanding Emotional Eating

What is emotional eating?

To understand the culprit behind emotional eating, it’s important to establish why we eat in the first place.  Breaking down why we eat can help you determine the reason you might be reaching for that leftover doughnut at 2:00 in the afternoon.

Why do we eat?

First, eating is required for survival; it is a physiological process providing us with calories, which are converted into units of energy for our bodies to perform normal functions to live day to day. Ever head to the gym on an empty stomach only to leave feeling completely gassed?  This is when your stomach signals a physiological need for food.  When we are physically hungry the feeling comes on gradually; it's your body's way of telling you that you need more fuel.

Next, eating provides us with feelings of satisfaction. This is a psychological process and is why that glass of wine feels so relaxing after a long day of work.  A psychological hunger, or “head/heart” hunger sends your body very different signals; it’s more sudden, involves absentminded eating, may result in feelings of guilt and likely stems from a particular emotion.  An emotional hunger encourages you to crave something in particular, such as that old doughnut and occurs more so in your head rather than your tummy.

Lastly, food is SOCIAL, serving as the vehicle for us to gather with friends and family. From happy hour to weddings, and even funerals, food is often the conduit we use to connect and relate with others. We say "let's DO lunch" when what we really mean is I'd love to see you and catch up.

So where does emotional eating fit in?

Eating out of a state of emotion is a psychological process and can be viewed as a temporary escape or an outlet to avoid feelings.  Emotional eating provides you with a brief satisfaction at the moment—a cover-up or Band-Aid, hiding the truth behind the plate of nachos.  


Why is emotional eating so hard to stop?

Emotions are much like a fire. To keep an emotion alive, you have to fuel it. Being able to manage an emotion depends greatly on how much you feed into it. For instance, in motorcycles driver’s education, they tell you to keep your eyes straight forward on the road ahead. Don’t be distracted on that upcoming pothole because where you fixate your sight is where you will end up!  The same is true about our emotions.  By focusing on how terrified of spiders we are, or how infuriated by our co-workers' lack of respect for timeliness, we find ourselves on this continual cycle of being trapped in that particular emotion. 

To change your action, you must change your emotion, right?  Easier said than done.  You can’t just convince yourself that a spider is as harmless as your cat, Fluffy. Avoiding the underlying reason for your emotion will only force it into hiding and may result in it coming back ten-fold! You must first realize that it is in YOUR POWER to change.

Tips to overcome emotional eating:

Here are easy steps to take when you feel the power of the donut taking control.


  1. Step away from the scene of the crime.  If you know that the employee break room is full of leftovers from yesterday’s potluck, opt to take your break elsewhere.  Grab a work buddy and take a brisk walk around the building.  Exercise releases those happy endorphins allowing you to come back to your work in a better state of mind and possibly more productive. (Win-win!)
  2. After eating, take 15 and rate yourself. Distract yourself for 15 minutes.  (Yes, you can even set a timer!)  After 15 minutes have passed, rate your level of hunger on a scale from 0-10.  0 being starving, “I could literally eat grandma’s holiday fruitcake; what does she put in that anyway?” and 10 being overstuffed, “That last piece of cake sounds good, but if I take one more bite I may pop!” The higher you rate yourself the better the chance that you’re experiencing a head hunger over a physical hunger.
  3. Assess the feeling. Run down a list of emotions and ask yourself if you could be experiencing any of them.  This works really well in front of a mirror.  “Is it stress?” “Am I bored?”  You might find relief just from facing the truth.  Take it a bit further by journaling these feelings; the act of visually seeing it on paper helps to take the hunger out of your head.  
  4. Brush away the craving. If you’re having “mouth” hunger, just another form of head/heart hunger, try brushing those pearly whites!  This may help wash away that taste you were craving.
  5. There really is an art to distraction.  Seek to fulfil that emotion with a different kind of comfort.  Pick up a book, listen to music, or call a friend. After all, indulging in your child’s breakfast cereal at 9:00 pm won’t make the stress of your current financial troubles disappear.  You never know, your friend may have some great advice that could lead you to find a solution to your problem and help to alleviate your emotions.
  6. Smaller plates = smaller portions.  This is the simple act of retraining your brain.  Also, eat slowly and really enjoy the taste of each bite.
  7. Face the sneaky truth.  If you battle with “sneaking” foods, eat your favorite choices in the presence of others.  You may find you are less likely to stuff yourself to a 10 by simply being around someone else.
  8. There’s no cheating in eating.  It’s impossible to cheat with food.  By definition, cheating is breaking rules to gain an unfair advantage in a competitive situation. If eating were cheating, then why do we feel like we’ve taken two steps back afterward?  Look at your “choices” as just that—choices.  Strive to make better choices each day.
  9. Replace F.A.T.S (acronym for Fat, Angry, Tension Shame) If you find that you tend to beat yourself up over your choices, try replacing this negative self-talk with positive affirmations.  Self-love may take some time to retain, but you have the strength to want to change, which is the first step!  Start slowly by admitting one thing you love about yourself.
  10. 10. Victory at last.  Before bed, start a journal and every evening write down at least five things you did today that were small accomplishments.  Reflect on this list when you are feeling negative or defeat and remind yourself that it is in YOUR POWER to change.


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