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How to Tell if You Are Actually Hungry (or Eating for Emotional Reasons)

Learn how to accurately read your hunger and satiety signals in order to help you maintain a healthy lifestyle

Are you Really Hungry?

When a client tells me about a recent binge, one of my first questions is, “How hungry were you when you reached for that piece of pie?” The reply is often a puzzled look, because they honestly have no idea. When you lose touch with your body, you don’t know how to recognize physical hunger.

Emotional eating is a coping mechanism for dealing with discomfort, and it often leads to overeating. But it’s not a true solution and can even cause long-term problems like health impacts and weight gain. You can take back control of your eating and build healthier habits.

What is Emotional Hunger?

Occasional emotional eating can be a normal response to strong feelings; indeed, research demonstrates that 75-percent of our eating is triggered by feelings. Because food does more than satisfy physical hunger. We reach for food as a reward or to relieve stress — like ordering a pizza at the end of a hard day, or settling down with a pint of ice cream after a bad break-up. Relying on food to make you feel better is a temporary reprieve. A binge can leave you feeling worse, especially when you beat yourself up about it, plus the problem that triggered the emotional eating still remains. All too often, these mounting bad feelings only perpetuate the cycle of emotional eating. 

"Telltale signs of emotional eating include regularly rewarding yourself with food, eating when you’re anxious or lonely, eating when you’re not hungry or already full, and feeling out of control around food."

Telltale signs of emotional eating include regularly rewarding yourself with food, eating when you’re anxious or lonely, eating when you’re not hungry or already full, and feeling out of control around food. Causes of emotional eating include anxiety and restrictive dieting as well as situational and seasonal stressors — like pandemic lockdown and winter holiday parties. Sometimes food is a distraction from conflict or worry, like in the aftermath of an argument or the night before a big presentation. Sometimes boredom is at the root of emotional hunger, and reaching for food is an attempt to “fill a void” in your life. Or maybe the habit of emotional eating was established in childhood, when you were rewarded with an ice cream cone or because of happy memories of backyard cookouts.

Following the impulse to eat in order to soothe negative feelings becomes a problem when you automatically reach for food in response to stress without thinking — like breaking open a box of pastries when you’re angry. That’s when emotional eating takes the place of constructive coping or learning heathy ways to address your problems.

How to Differentiate Emotional from Physical Hunger

While physical hunger steadily increases over time, can be put off for a time, and can be satiated, emotional hunger can come out of nowhere and feel powerful and urgent, demanding instant satisfaction. With true physical hunger, your body is looking for fuel and just about anything will appeal to an empty stomach. But emotional hunger craves the specific rush of comfort foods, often high in sugar and fat. If only chocolate will suffice, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with emotional hunger.

“If you have to ask yourself if you’re actually hungry . . . the worst that will happen is you’ll realize it was not true hunger,” says dietician and counselor Kirsten Ackerman of The Intuitive RD. “You can use that knowledge to explore hunger and fullness cues in the future.”

Mindless eating is emblematic of emotional hunger, making it easy to go through a box of cookies or an entire bag of potato chips before you know it. Emotional hunger can’t be satisfied, even if your stomach is full, because emotional hunger has nothing to do with your stomach. Feelings of shame, guilt, and regret are common with emotional hunger, when you know deep down that your eating has nothing to do with fueling your body.

So how can you learn to tell the difference? One place to start is to interview your hunger — before you eat anything, ask yourself, “What do I want to eat? Why do I want this right now?” Are you craving something specific, like mashed potatoes or butterscotch pudding, or are you open to other food options? This will help you gauge whether you’re truly hungry, or if you’re feeling stressed or upset instead

“Hunger doesn’t always feel like growling in your stomach”

“Hunger doesn’t always feel like growling in your stomach,” says dietician Meredith Renshaw of Free Method Nutrition. “It can also feel like fatigue, irritability, brain fog, nausea or light headedness.” Using a hunger scale can also help. Before you eat anything, on a scale of 1 (where you’re starving) to 10 (where you’re stuffed full), how hungry are you? If you’re at a 5 or above, it’s probably emotional hunger. 

Too many distractions can also make it easy to confuse physical and emotional hunger. Turning off the TV and putting away your phone can help bring your focus back to your body and its natural cues.

How to Stop Emotional Eating

When you feel the urge to eat in response to stress, consider other ways to find the comfort you crave. Maybe what you really need is to take a break, go for a walk, or watch a funny YouTube video. Take a breath and try to identify what you’re feeling, so you can choose an appropriate remedy. If your emotional eating is the result of loneliness, anxiety, anger, or fear, it’s helpful to pay attention to the sources of those feelings so you’re not tempted to numb of “stuff down” your discomfort with food

Keeping a mood diary can help you get to the bottom of your emotional eating triggers and figure out better approaches to dealing with them. Each time you feel emotional hunger come calling, reach for your diary first and write down what you’re feeling. Take a breath and reflect. Look for patterns with these feelings — like an argument with a friend or family member, stress at work, or attending a social or sporting event. 

"A big part of resolving emotional hunger is learning to accept all of your feelings, even the uncomfortable ones."

A big part of resolving emotional hunger is learning to accept all of your feelings, even the uncomfortable ones. Once you know what’s triggering your emotional hunger, you can choose healthier responses instead. Putting a stop to emotional eating means finding other ways to fulfill yourself. You can try to relieve anxiety through physical activity or dancing as a distraction, and a phone call or visit with a friend is a better remedy for loneliness than any fancy doughnut. Tame your stress with yoga or meditation. Fatigue can be soothed with self-care like a warm bath and aromatherapy. When you’re bored, you can play with your cat or turn to entertainment options like a streaming TV show or a good book.

Adopting other healthy lifestyle habits — like getting enough sleep, engaging in regular physical exercise, maintaining positive relationships, and taking time to relax — will also help reduce stress and boost your energy and mood. Removing the temptation of comfort foods from your home is another good step, as is delaying trips to the grocery store when you’re feeling down or irritated. If you’re dealing with a particularly strong craving, try to put off eating for five minutes. It’s not a battle of willpower, just a pause. You can use this time to distract yourself with a quick walk outside or listening to your favorite song, and you can check in with yourself about your circumstances and what you’re feeling. You might not completely avoid emotional eating, but you’ll have a much better idea about your triggers and will be better prepared going forward.

It’s also important to learn your body’s true hunger patterns. If you wait too long to satisfy real physical hunger, you could end up “hangry” and ready to wolf down anything and everything within reach. Being more proactive about physical hunger — like recognizing that your body prefers an earlier lunch time, or eating more protein to help you feel full for longer — can help you avoid situations where your hunger takes over.

Learn to slow down and savor your food, free from the distractions of television and phone screens. With patience and practice, you can learn to stop eating before your stomach is overly full by eating more mindfully and checking in with your hunger and satiety levels during your meal. Breaking the cycle of emotional eating requires time and patience. But your awareness of the problem is a solid first step toward building healthier habits. If you find yourself struggling, a physician can identify any underlying medical conditions and a mental health professional can help you to identify your triggers for emotional eating and develop better coping skills. It’s okay to eat when you’re not hungry sometimes, like having a piece of cake at a birthday party. But if emotional hunger is in charge of your eating more often than not, these solid strategies can help you get it under control.

Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Sera Lavelle, is the cofounder of Bea Better Eating and owner of NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy in NYC. To learn more about Bea Better Eating and our mission, please click here.

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