I’m convinced that most of us at one time or another have eaten when we weren’t hungry. I’m also pretty convinced that many of us have eaten when we are feeling stressed, anxious, angry, sad, frustrated, bored, lonely, you name it! I have my own comfort foods.
The purpose of this kind of eating is not to fuel our body or keep us healthy, but to make us feel better. I’m not convinced this is always a bad thing, but it can be a problem when it becomes the primary way we deal with these emotions. As I’m sure many readers know, this is not an effective way to deal with problems or emotions, and can often result in making us feel guilt or shame afterwards, not to mention gaining weight which is no fun either.
How can you tell if you are just occasionally eating when you are bored, or to celebrate, or if you are an emotional eater? If you eat more when you are feeling stressed, if you find yourself eating when you are already full or not hungry, if you feel like food is your friend, or if you reward yourself with food regularly, these may be warning signs that you are eating for unhealthy reasons.
Emotional hunger is different than physical hunger. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, physical hunger is more gradual. Emotional hunger results in craving certain foods such as those very high in sugar or salt, physical hunger can be satisfied with most anything. Emotional hunger can cause “mindless eating”, where you don’t realize you’ve eaten a box of cookies or a bag of chips until they’re almost gone. Emotional hunger isn’t done with you when you are full, but demands more, whereas physical hunger is gone once you are satisfied. Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach, but more as a craving you can’t get out of your mind. Emotional hunger ends with feelings of guilt, shame or regret, where as physical hunger does not.
What are some alternatives to emotional or stress eating? Here are some quick ideas depending on your mood:
If you are sad, down, or lonely do something that connects you with other living things. Call up a friend, play with a pet or a family member.
If you are feeling nervous, having anxiety, or worried try burning off some of that energy by doing physical activity. Go for a brisk-paced walk, head to the gym, dance to a song at home, or connect with someone.
If you are feeling exhausted do something to care for yourself: drink something warm and soothing, take a warm bath or shower, settle in with a blanket and watch an enjoyable show.
Boredom sneaks up on all of us sometimes. Attempting something that can distract you is a good idea. Read a good book, trying watching an absorbing movie or TV show, try to connect with others, get out of the house, or engage in a hobby you enjoy.
The key is to make a plan so when you are noticing yourself with cravings you know what you can to do help. Here are some suggestions:
- If you start imagining how good it would be to eat a certain type of food, take yourself all the way through the fantasy to the other side, including your feelings of guilt, shame or regret afterward. This can help motivate you to get into a habit of something else!
- Ask yourself to wait 5 minutes before eating. If you can do this, you give yourself a window of opportunity to exercise self-control. Even if you can only wait one minute you’ve helped yourself. The goal is not to tell yourself you won’t, but just to wait.
- Start a journal. Write in it every day, just briefly, what you were feeling when you felt the urge to eat, and see if there are patterns. Include a brief statement of what you could have done instead of eat that may have helped. This can be a powerful source of insight and encouragement
- Involve someone else! Find someone you can trust and let them know you are struggling, set up an arrangement where you can let them know when you are struggling, and promise them you will let them know if you emotionally eat. Having support and accountability can be a big help to everyone
- If you want more information or a more structured approach to emotional or compulsive eating, try reading some helpful books:
- The Hunger Within by Marilyn Migliore is recommended by therapists as a great workbook to help yourself. It’s currently out of print, but that only means you can get it very cheaply
- Healing the Hungry Self by Deirdra Pierce is another well-known and recommended resource by mental health professionals
If you have tried multiple times and have not been successful, feel as though your eating is getting worse, or if you just want extra support and accountability, it may be time to seek some professional help. Psychology Today has the largest directory of therapists in the country and gives someone plenty of options for help. Click on the link to take you directly to your search.
Above all, don’t give up! You can do it, and every step you take toward helping yourself will give you more confidence, more hope, and give you a sense you are taking better control of your life and yourself. You deserve it!
I am indebted to Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal Ph.D., and Robert Segal, M.A for their work on this topic.