We’ve all done it at one time or another: reached for a bag of chips, box of cookies, or candy bar to satisfy not just hunger, but an inner emotional need. Whether it’s boredom, anger, fear, guilt, worry, loneliness, or sadness that we’re experiencing, we let food comfort us.
But it’s not emotions alone that can cause this type of hunger. Physical and mental strain, sleep deprivation, poor diet, and nutritional deficiencies are also triggers for emotional eating.
The problem is what we eat during these moments of emotional and physical distress (hot fudge sundae, anyone?).
“When we eat in the absence of physical hunger cues, regularly choose unhealthy comfort foods, or eat when we’re already full, something is out of balance somewhere,” writes psychotherapist Julie M. Simon in The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual.
So how do we know if what we’re feeling is emotional hunger or true hunger? Emotional hunger generally needs to be satisfied quickly, even instantly. Emotional hunger also tends to create cravings for specific foods (often comfort foods such as sweets).
Taming the beast
“Most overeating is emotional eating,” says Denise Lamothe, PsyD, HHD, author of The Taming of the Chew: A Holistic Guide to Stopping Compulsive Eating. The emotional eating roller coaster starts with feeling emotionally uncomfortable. Eating sugary or fat-laden foods acts as an anesthetic, temporarily helping you feel better. You then feel remorseful about what you’ve eaten and grab more food to feel better again. “It’s a continuous cycle that must be broken,” adds Dr. Lamothe.
Turning mindless indulgences into mindful eating is no easy task. However, there are several strategies that can help.
Susan Albers, PsyD, stresses the need for an awareness of why you are eating. So when you find yourself reaching for something to eat when you’re stressed or upset, take a moment to be present and mindful. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. What are you really feeling? If it’s true hunger, eat something nourishing.
She advises paying attention to how your hunger and fullness change with each healthy mouthful. And with each bite you take, try engaging the other senses: Start by smelling the food. Mindfully doing so can produce a feeling of fullness and may make you less likely to eat everything in front of you. Chew food thoroughly. This slows down consumption, enhances the experience of the food, and aids in digestion.
Nourish body and soul
You’ve had a bad day at work. Your family is driving you crazy. You just found out your car needs brakes—and a new battery. Life is full of stress.
But before you reach for the cookie jar, stop. Do something else. Go for a walk, call a friend, write in a journal, tackle a household chore, take a bath.
Don’t use food as a reward or stress reliever. Instead, indulge in a manicure or massage, read a book, or just allow yourself to sit down and relax for 10 minutes.
Try meditation. It’s a great way to deal with stress. It can also help you feel balanced and less anxious. Harvard University-affiliated researchers looked at magnetic resonance images of the brains of 16 people before and after they participated in an eight-week-long mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction program. They determined that meditating for about 30 minutes a day not only significantly reduced the participants’ stress, it also literally made changes in their brains, decreasing the density of gray matter in an area related to stress and anxiety.
If you don't have 30 minutes a day to meditate, don't worry. A study conducted with college students shows that as little as 5 to 12 minutes of daily mindfulness meditation can significantly decrease stress and anxiety.
It’s inspiration enough to make room in your life for this mindful practice.