As a mother I have heard countless times form my children that they are dying from hunger. And no, a glass of water or a piece of fruit will not do. “I am not hungry for food,” they would say, “I am hungry for candy or ice-cream!”
Do you find yourself racing to the pantry or refrigerator when you are not hungry for food but feeling down or otherwise upset? Finding comfort in food is common, and it is part of a practice called emotional eating.
People who emotionally eat reach for food several times a week or more to suppress and soothe negative feelings such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness. If you suffer from emotional distress you might turn to impulsive or binge eating, munching on whatever is close without enjoyment. In fact, your emotions can become so tied to your eating habits that you automatically reach for a treat whenever you're angry or stressed without thinking about what you're doing.
Food may also serve as a distraction. If you're fretting over a conflict or worried about an upcoming event, for example, you may focus on eating comfort food instead of dealing with the painful situation.
Emotional eating can also be a direct result of not being conscious of what or why you’re eating. This is called unconscious eating. Unconscious eating is when you’re done with your meal, and you keep on picking at it, slowly eating the left over portion that you intended to leave behind. It can also be putting peanuts, chips or any other food in your mouth, just because it’s in front of you.
What causes someone to eat because of their emotions? Anything from health issues to relationship problems, work stress to financial worries may be the source of emotional eating.
You may wonder how to decide between emotional cues and true hunger cues. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are several differences that might help clue you in to what you’re experiencing.
To determine if you’re craving food due to emotions or if your body is actually hungry, ask yourself the following:
Are you experiencing distinct hunger such as a rumbling stomach, headache, irritability or fatigue?
Did your hunger grow gradually, for example, between breakfast and lunch?
Are you looking for a food that is filling and are open to options to fill that hunger, as opposed to craving a specific taste?
Can you wait to eat instead of needing to eat immediately after the desire to eat is felt?
Did your desire to eat come quickly and intensely, like an on/off switch?
Are you open to suggestion? For example: A co-worker is going out for a coffee and a muffin, and suddenly both sound very good.
Does your hunger increase when certain emotions are felt, for example, when feeling stressed or guilty?
Does your hunger take over and you can’t think through all food options?
Do you crave a particular kind of food such as chocolate or bread?
Is a feeling of satisfaction hard to reach, which seems to be unrelated to how full or empty your stomach is?
If your answer is yes to more questions under the emotional hunger list than under the physical hunger list, then you are not really hungry and then you could benefit more from a self-soothing activity than from grabbing something to eat.
So if you’re used to eating in response to emotional situations, what can you do instead? Start by making a list of activities you might enjoy that don’t involve eating. One of the simplest, easiest and healthiest alternatives to emotional eating is walking or other forms of physical activity. Another option is craft activities, as it not only pass the time but give you something physical to do, while allowing you to be creative and productive.
You may turn to food for comfort — consciously or unconsciously — when facing a difficult problem, feeling stressed or even feeling bored. Keep in mind that sometimes the strongest food cravings hit when you're at your weakest point emotionally.
It is in those times that, like my children, you and I may find our minds screaming that we are not hungry for food but that we are hungry for candy or ice-cream. Like them we need to learn to separate physical and emotional hunger, self-regulate eating by eating mindfully, and paying attention to hunger signals.
Take time to analyse your eating patterns, learn more about normal eating vs. emotional overeating, and develop new self-help strategies to address both your emotional and physical relationships with food. We at Zenzile Life encourage you to practice saying “no,” not only to unhealthy foods, but also to emotionally-charged situations that sabotage your efforts to develop better eating habits.
This post is for informational purposes only. It should not be considered therapy. This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local doctor/psychologist or psychiatrist or the SADAG Mental Health Line on 011 234 4837. If necessary, please phone the Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567 or sms 31393.