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Emotional vs Physical Hunger

Many of us can relate to feeling hungry for emotional rather than physical reasons. And, emotional eating doesn’t have to be the stereotypical “drown out your sorrows eating a pint of ice cream directly from the container.” Things like stress, celebration, boredom, and loneliness are all some of the reasons why we might eat something when it’s not mealtime, and we don’t actually need food for energy.

Thirty-eight percent (38%) of Americans report overeating or eating unhealthy foods within the last month due to stress. And half of those report doing it weekly or even more often. This has become a significant problem in our society because excess weight is linked to an increased risk for chronic diseases that have reached epic proportions.

Forty-four percent (44%) of Canadians over age 20 are suffering from at least one common chronic condition.

But often when we engage in some form of emotional eating, we actually feel like we need to snack on something. Why is that?  And what can we do about it?

Let’s first explore the difference between physical and emotional hunger and then learn some strategies we can use to change our behaviour.

Tummy ache with clipping path

Physical Hunger

Physical hunger tends to come on gradually as a result of a physical need for energy. The feeling comes from the stomach and can be satisfied with a number of different foods. Sometimes, as a result of eating a high amount of refined starch in the diet, this physical craving is for sugary foods due to hypoglycemia. This can be resolved by making different food choices.

Generally, physical hunger is natural and arrives every 4-5 hours at mealtime.

Emotional Hunger

Emotional eating is more of a sudden, urgent craving for a specific food. It’s often paired with an upsetting or stressful emotion and involves mindless eating. It’s common to not notice that you are getting over-full until it’s too late, and there is often subsequent guilt associated with the eating episode.

Awareness is the first step in making a change. So, when you are feeling the desire to reach for some food, ask yourself whether the need is originating from a physical or emotional need.

Strategies to Try

If you realize through investigation that you are engaging in emotional eating more than you would like, then it’s time to try some strategies that can help you make a shift in your behavior.

Don’t deprive yourself – it’s commonly known that deprivation diets lead to overeating once you are “allowing” yourself to eat normally again. But this can also be the case when you are depriving yourself of the self-love and self-care that you need.

If you spend your day being the martyr and doing things for everyone else except yourself, you will have similar feelings of being deprived. When the evening comes, you can feel that you deserve more than you have received on that day. And if your habit is to reward yourself with food, this is the time that you may get that emotional craving.

Make sure you…

  • Enjoy your food throughout the day and don’t’ starve yourself and risk overeating later.
  • Give yourself the love and compassion you need throughout the day (this may involve taking breaks, meditating, reading for pleasure, etc.).

Be intentional – slow down, practice self-love (i.e. use the ideas in the other blog post and link to it)

Bottom Line

The first step in addressing emotional eating is in identifying when you are doing it. So, be sure to spend some time investigating your behaviours with curiosity (not criticism) so that you can take that information and plan for moving forward.

Then, use some of the ideas of slowing down and self-love to address the triggers that you identified. And replace the emotional eating habit with one that more directly meets your needs.

Want my 5 step process to stop eating too much? I have written another article about it here. Check it out and let me know which strategy is working the best for you.

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If you would like to discuss how you can create the thoughts you need to support achieving your health goals, schedule a call with me now to discuss.

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