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Emotional Eating: What Kind of Hunger do you Answer To?

Blog Image: Emotional Eating: What Kind of Hunger do you Answer To?

Most of us eat, have eaten, or will eat in response to intense emotions at some point in our lives. Regardless of whether you're actively involved in the weight loss process or not, it’s important to hone in on your emotions so that you remain in control of them. Because unfortunately for most of us, we tend not to gravitate towards celery and apple slices for comfort. If you’re not cognizant of your emotions and how powerful they can be, they’ll likely influence not only what you eat and how you eat, but even why you eat! 

We have a saying at Metabolic Research Center, “If you don’t manage your emotions, they’ll manage you.” We agree with medical professionals that there is a small percentage of the obese population is overweight due to a legitimate medical reason or their weight is impacted by reasons they cannot control (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), Cushings Syndrome, Hypothyroidism, etc.). But for many of us, our struggle with excess weight can largely be attributed to a “bad case of emotions!”


So, what does that phrase “emotional eating” mean anyway? Simply put, emotional eating is when you eat in response to an emotion rather than in response to physical hunger. We’ll discuss the main differences between physical and emotional hunger momentarily, but first, let’s look at a real and very powerful example of emotional eating and how one client realized the impact of it:

For a period of time, Sarah* (name changed to protect client identity) began to struggle incredibly with craving “all things cinnamon”: cinnamon rolls, cinnabons, apple pie, and more. The cravings were overwhelming her! This all-consuming desire was something she’d never experienced before, and it was interfering with her weight loss efforts big-time. Right in the middle of the MRC class that she was attending on the topic of “Emotional Eating”, without warning; she blurted out, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got it! I know why I want cinnamon rolls!!” 

All eyes turned to her as she explained, “As a child, our Saturday morning routine was to be awakened by one delicious whiff after another of my mother’s home-made cinnamon rolls! My siblings and I would gather round the kitchen table with Mom. And as she’d sip her coffee, she’d fill our hearts and minds with stories and wonderful memories of her own childhood. While she’d talk, we’d get to enjoy the world’s most delicious cinnamon rolls!” This epiphany hit Sarah like a ton of bricks. Now, practically jumping up and down, she joyfully realized and shared, “I don’t need cinnamon rolls, I need my mom! I need to spend more time with her!” 

Sarah experienced this “flash memory” because of the class discussion and in the wake of getting her mom’s grim cancer diagnosis. The truth that her mom would be leaving her was why she was desperately trying to connect with her at a subconscious level through “all things cinnamon!” In discovering the underlying and true need that she had to spend time with her mom, she realized that wanting to eat unhealthy cinnamon-flavored foods was just a symptom of her emotional hunger -  it wasn’t physical hunger at all. Sarah went beyond finding a temporary fix to her emotional eating to finding her permanent cure!

 This very real example helps illustrate how you originally may have gotten “hooked on food” is often found in childhood events, or in your interpretation of those memories. For this reason, emotional eating can be incredibly difficult to put a stop to, and is oftentimes so much more than just “put down the doughnut, Karen.” Another component of emotional eating is how our mind will use foods to alleviate or suppress intense emotions. In general, our natural protective response is to avoid intense emotions: those that might make us cry, feel stressed, get angry, etc. For many of us, we turn to eating to help distract us from these emotions. The act of eating is a very sensual experience; inasmuch as you use most - and oftentimes all of your physical senses to experience food: taste, smell, touch, sight, and even hearing. These senses interacting together produce pleasure-type hormones and the resulting pleasurable feelings. This is what makes food seem so effective at “pushing” unwanted emotions down so that we don’t have to deal with them. Well, not until the unresolved emotions resurface again, and again, that is. 

Now that we’ve taken a deep dive into what emotional eating is and how it often comes about, let’s shift the focus to hunger. Did you know that there are two types of hunger: physical and emotional? Which kind of hunger do you most often answer to? Take a look at the list below, and answer “Yes” or “No” for each. At the end, we’ll tell you whether you tend to eat for your emotions or for satiating your physical need:


Did you eat when you were emotionally upset or experiencing intense feelings?

    • When eating to satisfy emotional hunger, you’ll stuff and usually eat faster...All of a sudden the whole pint is gone. 
    • With physical hunger, you can thoughtfully and calmly eat your food while savoring each bite.

Do you ever feel guilty after you eat - experiencing thoughts like “oh man, why did I just do that?” or “I shouldn’t have eaten as much as I just did”

    • Emotional hunger results in guilt and self promises of doing better next time. 
    • Physical hunger has no guilt attached to it whatsoever.

When you eat, do you pay attention to what’s going in your mouth? (The opposite of this would be acting fast: stuffing and swallowing just to get the next bite in)

    • Emotional hunger rarely notices what’s been eaten- you’ll want more even if you are stuffed.
    • Physical hunger involves a deliberate choice about what you consume along with awareness of what you eat, how much you put in your mouth and you easily and willingly stop when you are full. 

When you get hungry, do you feel an almost desperate need to eat something right away?

    • Emotional hunger demands immediate satisfaction.  
    • Physical hunger will wait for healthy options, and won’t necessarily be satisfied with unhealthy choices.

Answering “Yes” to 3 or more of these questions indicates that you have emotional eater tendencies - eating to soothe and suppress your emotions. To this point you may have believed food to be that friend that’ll protect you from feeling bad because it gives you a way to temporarily escape your reality and avoid your feelings. But, the key part of that statement is the temporary; those feelings of calm are fleeting and oftentimes replaced by guilt. This does nothing to help your emotions; rather, it can ultimately intensify negative emotions and a feeling of powerlessness over them. Thus, the cycle continues. But, all is not lost! Just as in the example above, the cycle can be broken! MRC Coaches have been helping clients break the cycle for over 35 years. The result? An ability to more quickly achieve your weight loss goals and new habits to keep that lost weight off for a lifetime! If you’re struggling with emotional eating, we can help! Connect with an MRC Weight Loss Specialist today.

Blog Image: Emotional Eating: What Kind of Hunger do you Answer To?

This information was adapted from Metabolic Research Center’s “Connections” curriculum classes and from Roger Gould, M.D.; “Shrink Yourself”. This and a complete set of 11 other classes are available to all Metabolic Research Center clients. Interested in learning more about this and other classes? Connect with a Weight Loss Specialist local to you today. These classes are complimentary to all active clients, and connect you to an environment of support and success that helps facilitate positive changes in your long term diet and daily life.


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