The other day I was popping almonds mindlessly. After a little almond shard pierced my gums, I came out of the trance and wondered why the heck I was eating these almonds. I had just finished lunch about an hour before, and I definitely wasn’t hungry in a biological sense. However, I was hungry for some relief from the stress and pressure I was feeling that day.
Buried in deadlines, behind on work, refrigerator went out, just got back from the emergency vet and exhausted from insomnia the night before, I needed a release so I took it out on the almonds rather than taking the time to more effectively soothe my mind and body.
Stress eating is estimated to impact about 50% of the population (1). And, experts estimate that over 75% of overeating is triggered by emotions, not physical hunger (2). For some, it amounts to a few handfuls of almonds here and there—pretty harmless. For others, it can be a barrier to achieving fitness goals, or in more severe cases, cause obesity and illness.
No matter the result, be it just a little guilt or major healthy concerns, emotional eating is an indication that individuals may not be tuned into how they are feeling and/or not equipped with the tools to take care of their needs and cope with life’s difficulties. Moreover, feeding emotional hunger with food doesn’t provide the relief one needs—it’s more of a quick fix band-aid. Individuals may temporarily escape the negative emotional state, but it will quickly return—typically with a side order of guilt.
Differentiating Biological & Emotional Hunger
The first step to addressing emotional eating is distinguishing it from biological hunger. In her book 50 Ways To Soothe Yourself Without Food, Susan Albers, PSY.D. offers these clues…
Emotional Hunger Characteristics:
1. Desire to eat comes on quickly.
2. Your want something very specific (i.e., donut, french fries)
3. Hunger increases with a certain feeling, like stress, sadness, etc.
4. The hunger and craving is difficult to reason with
5. Eating is mindless—you don’t taste, it feels automatic.
6. Hard to feel satisfied.
7. Guilt before and after eating.
Biological Hunger Characteristics:
1. Hunger grows gradually overtime.
2. You want something filling and are open to a variety of types of foods.
3. You have hunger cues like a grumbling stomach, grouchiness, head ache.
4. You quit eating when you are full.
5. No guilt associated with eating.
6. You can wait a bit to eat. It’s not urgent.
Next is identifying what you are feeling. Typical feelings that drive emotional hunger are boredom, sadness, exhaustion, frustration, stress, anger and loneliness. To help you get to the bottom of what you’re feeling, in the book Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch suggest: sitting quietly to think through the situation, writing about it, discussing it with a friend, talking about it into a tape recorder and/or speaking with a therapist.
What Do I Really Need?
As a part of working through your feelings, you must consider what you truly need to sooth you. Ice cream won’t help exhaustion, sleep will. Almonds won’t get you 30 minutes of relaxation, shutting your computer down early will. Often times all we need is a little help—its as easy as asking someone, “Would you please [fill in the need here]?” You will be surprised by how often others are willing to lend a hand if you just ask.
Push Toward Your Best
While each person has her/his own struggles, emotional eating typically comes down to needing to take better care of one’s self. Whether it be making time for nurturing activities or more fun, giving yourself the permission and space to feed your needs will make a world of difference in your long-term health. So this week, fuel up by scheduling the yoga class, picking up that book, getting a massage, prioritizing meditation and/or whatever else your heart desires!
Keep pushing—your best is waiting!
1. Sproesser, G., Schupp, H. and Renner, B. The Bright Side of Stress-Induced Eating:
Eating More When Stressed but Less When Pleased. Psychological Science 2014, Vol. 25(1) 58
2. Albers, S. 50 Ways To Soothe Yourself Without Food. California: New Harbinger, 2009. Print.
3. Heatherton, T. and Baumeister, R. Binge Eating as Escape From Self-Awareness. Psychological Bulletin 1991, Vol. 110 (1), 86-108.
4. Tribole, E., and Resch, E. Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works. New York: St. Martin’s, 2003. Print.