What is Emotional Eating vs. Physical Hunger?

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Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better—eating to fill immediate or chronic emotional needs.

It is eating urgently and instantly, as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness, and loneliness. Emotional eating has a numbing effect on our unwanted feelings, taking our attention away from them—momentarily.

Physical hunger is eating in response to a need: to fuel your body to make it through the day. Your body will give you cues that it needs to refuel (stomach grumbling, headache, feeling weak or tired).

When you are physically hungry, almost any food sounds good—including healthy stuff, like vegetables.

Rarely do you make healthy choices with emotional hunger—instead, emotional eaters tend to crave high-calorie or high-carbohydrate foods that have minimal nutritional value and provide an instant rush.

Emotional hunger can be very powerful (emotionally and physically), so it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. Emotional eating is an unhealthy cycle of trying to fill an emotional need with food.

It can become a coping mechanism and a never-ending cycle that fails to fulfill or satisfy over the long term. Eating may feel good in the immediate moment, but the feelings that triggered it remain.

The problem is that you often feel worse than you did before you ate because of the calories you consumed. When untreated, emotional eating leads to overeating and eventually causes obesity, weight-loss problems, and possibly food addiction.

What is the physiological basis for emotional eating?
It is thought that the increase in the hormone cortisol, one of the body’s many responses to stress, is similar to the medication prednisone in its effects. Both tend to trigger the body’s stress (fight-or-flight) response, including increased heart and breathing rate, blood flow to muscles, and visual acuity.

Another part of the body’s stress response often includes increased appetite. This increased appetite may result in cravings for junk or high-calorie foods.

People who have been subjected to chronic rather than momentary stress (like job stress, family stress, or abuse) are at risk for having chronically high levels of cortisol circulating in their bodies.

Identify your triggers and hotspots.
You need to identify what feelings, places, or situations push you to an emotional state where you eat to calm down or feel better.

It should be noted that not all emotional eating is linked to negative emotions. Some women will emotionally eat to express positive feelings like happiness, love, or pride.

Some common triggers for emotional eating are:

• Stress/anger
• Childhood habit
• Boredom or feelings of worthlessness
• Social influences or peer pressure
• Relationship conflicts
• Loneliness
• Health problems

Whatever your personal identified triggers are, the cycle remains the same—these emotions drive you to overeat or make poor eating choices.

Release the emotions by acceptance and emotional grounding and centering.
The key to ending this pattern is to not abandon yourself when your emotions go awry, but instead to invite them in, center yourself, and allow yourself to feel your emotions. Substitute the negative emotional drivers for positive behaviors.

Identify and name the emotion (anger, sadness, guilt) and allow yourself to embody these emotions. Recognize that these emotions are valid and have a right to be expressed, but in a healthy manner.

These negative emotions are just as important as your positive emotions for overall psychological health and well-being. Accept the negative emotion and try to figure out what it wants from you.

Find other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally, aside from eating. Center yourself by mediating and focusing on only the raw emotion, identifying what led to it, what can dissipate it.

Meditation and other relaxation techniques are powerful tools to manage stress and decrease emotional eating. It also has even more lasting beneficial effects on health, even decreasing high blood pressure and heart rate.

Substitute the negative emotional drivers for the positive alternative behaviors.
Through listening to your emotions, you’ll discover what it is you truly want and can create new strategies for deeper satisfaction.

It’s not enough to understand the cycle of emotional eating or even to understand your triggers. You need alternatives for emotional fulfillment. If you’re depressed or lonely, call someone you love and who always makes you feel better, or play with your dog or cat. If you’re bored, read a good book or explore the outdoors.

Eat well, live well.
Make pleasure a priority in your life!

Make it a priority to eat the highest-quality and most delicious foods. Sit down and savor every bite. Recognize the sensation of satiation. Explore and be adventurous in creating mouth-watering, well-balanced, satisfying food, which will help to decrease the likelihood of selecting food choices of poorer quality.

But go beyond experiences surrounding food.

Take relaxing bubble baths, get massages, exercise regularly, and do exciting things. Give your body other ways to experience feeling good besides eating.

Seek the support you need.
Seeking help to overcome powerful emotions and triggers that lead to emotional eating is essential. Your toolbox to overcome emotional eating should include:

• Calling a friend as a sounding board
• Journaling/blogging your feelings
• Joining a group, such as Overeaters Anonymous, for additional support
• Making use of mental-health professionals and therapy, which are underrated as powerful tools in treating emotional eating

Dr. Renee Allen is a board-certified OBGYN physician practicing in Atlanta, Ga. Allen’s strong interest in health and women’s health has made her a leading medical consultant domestically and internationally, and she appears frequently in the media for her expertise.

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