The idea of “eating your feelings” is not a new concept, yet time and again we do exactly that. We eat our feelings before we find that magic diet, and we eat our feelings when that magic diet fails us, as many diets do. One of the primary reasons why diets fail is because they are not sustainable in the long term, but going further, diets cannot address many clinical causes of personal health issues, such as emotional eating. On the other hand, eating for your health can address the underlying issues a diet will fail to meet.
Many look to food to relieve stress or cope with unpleasant emotions such as sadness, depression, loneliness or boredom. The truth is, after eating that cookie or cheesecake, we feel worse than the initial emotional motivation that compelled us to eat it. After emotional food binging, not only does the original emotional issue remain, but we also feel guilty for overeating. Sabotaging health and feeling powerless when it comes to food need not become a reality. By practicing a few clinically proven mindful techniques, anyone can navigate an emotional eating issue.
Emotional Hunger vs True Hunger
Recently, I wrote about the importance of gut health. The gut is in constant communication with the brain. These two organs are having a continuous conversation about emotions, hunger, immune functions and fighting chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer. Therefore, to initiate a healthy eating plan, or “mindful” eating, it is crucial to be able to tell the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger.
This connection between the gut and emotions is important in understanding why most cravings, mainly sugar and salt, create a vicious cycle by modulating gut health. For example, someone who is feeling upset might choose to soothe that emotion by reaching for cheesecake; however, once the cake has been consumed, the emotional state feels worse in a few hours — and another craving is born.
Occasionally using food as a reward or a means of celebration isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism, you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real problem is not addressed. Emotional hunger can never be satisfied by giving in to your cravings. This is where knowing the difference between emotional hunger and true hunger can be beneficial.
If after eating something you feel guilt, shame, enhanced cravings, aches and pain (especially headaches and migraines), a sense of loss of control or increased hunger, chances are you are eating to satisfy an emotional hunger. Unlike physical hunger, emotional hunger is controlled by specific cravings, which are attached to emotions and lead to mindless eating.
Combating Emotional Eating
If you are an emotional eater, you are not alone. Emotional eating is a major cause of overeating for women and one of the biggest reasons for fluctuating weight patterns in both women and men.
Additionally, if you are hoping to use willpower to stop cravings, you will find your struggles only get harder.
Willpower is a limited resource, and the more you use it, the less available it becomes. It is a resource that diminishes your self-efficacy upon frequent use. The goal when combating emotional eating is to first and foremost address the root cause instead of attempting to use willpower or a fad diet. Both of those will only mask the symptoms for a short period of time. When they fail, any progress made will diminish.
The first step in addressing the root causes of emotional eating is to practice self-respect and compassion. Give yourself the respect and compassion you would allow a friend or a family member. Even though you are using food in a way that you despise, you are eating the way that you do for a reason. Being hard on yourself will only cause the emotions to return, and before you know it, you are binging on your cravings.
The term “mindful” can be misconstrued as a spiritual or religious idea. Mindfulness, in the case of mindful eating, does not require a vow of silence while sitting atop a mountain surrounded by incense. Instead, mindfulness is a scientific and clinically proven strategy to deal with anxiety, stress and other emotions that might incite emotional eating.
Mindful eating requires paying full attention to the experience of eating and drinking, both outside and within the body, beginning at the grocery store. Be sure to practice mindful shopping to prevent impulse buys, and avoid going to the store on an empty stomach. Prepare a list of healthy foods, and shop the produce department rather than the processed foods aisle.
Next, do not skip meals. Emotional eating is enhanced when you get to the dinner table with a ravenous hunger. Appreciate your food and slow your meal down to enjoy it. If you want to up the game, track your food as well when you eat. This not only helps to curb emotional eating but can aid in weight loss, as well.
Finally, channel the words of your mom or grandmother you heard when you were little: Chew your food thoroughly. Chewing your food allows appetite hormones to communicate effectively. The brain then curbs appetite by stalling the hormone that makes us hungry and instead activates the one that makes us feel full.
Dr. Suman Ahuja completed her education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and at Texas Tech. She has a a doctorate in Clinical Nutrition with an emphasis on obesity treatment and prevention.