Have you ever reached for a snack, not because you're hungry, but because it makes you happy?
Probably, right? A lot of the time, we do not eat out of hunger. We often consume food when we are bored, sad, nervous, angry, or any other emotion. It's normal to experience a wide range of emotions throughout the day; that's why emotions can easily influence an activity as basic as eating.
What we eat and the quantity might change when we experience a specific emotion. When this happens, it's known as emotional eating.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is when we use food to deal with our emotions instead of satisfying hunger. Anything from work stress, financial worries, and health issues to relationship struggles may cause us to do so.
We know that eating is a necessity. We need to eat to have good physical and mental health. However, the desire to eat can be influenced by many factors, most of which are due to emotional causes.
Under normal circumstances, our bodies also have specific mechanisms that help us differentiate between hunger and satiety. Our bodies know when we need to eat and when we should stop. Yet, there is a complex link between our food and our emotions. Sometimes, we are not even sure why we're eating; it's almost out of impulse.
Everything we eat can affect our emotions, and our diet can also condition our feelings. That's why the intestine is often called our second brain.
When does it become a problem?
Emotional eating becomes a habit when the brain associates a "pleasant" food with a negative emotion or sensation. For example, your brain connects being sad with eating chocolate or having anxiety and eating everything in sight. From there, emotional hunger becomes a difficult habit to control. When the act is frequent, it can even affect weight, health, and general well-being.
When this happens, your body understands this as an irrepressible need to eat food, even though it's not responding to the urge to satisfy hunger. Sometimes, this act can be both conscious and unconscious.
Usually, emotional eating is associated with negative emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, anxiety, boredom, etc. However, it can also be related to positive emotions, such as going out with friends and celebrating. Most commonly, people eat emotionally during random moments throughout the day. Small instances or inconveniences can cause people to find comfort or distraction in food.
How to differentiate emotional eating from physiological hunger?
Understanding what triggers your emotional eating can help you take the necessary steps to curb this behavior. You have to know how to distinguish between eating something on a whim or eating emotionally.
Emotional hunger typically begins abruptly, and you'll likely crave specific foods. Also, once you start eating, you won't feel a fullness sensation. That's why you may binge on food, even if you feel guilty for doing it while you are still eating.
On the other hand, physical hunger, also known as biological hunger, is when you eat only when your body signals that you require food and are actually hungry. It’s associated with the classic rumbling sensation in the stomach.
How to break the cycle?
Managing emotional eating means finding other ways to deal with the situations and feelings that once caused you to turn to food for comfort.
Here are some things you can try instead of emotional eating:
- Cope with stress by exercising, reading a book, journaling, or taking a warm bath.
- Try meditation or breathwork to release anxiety.
- Eat a nutritious diet throughout the day, as it will be easier to recognize when you're reaching for unhealthy food because you are sad or stressed.
- Follow a meal plan as you’ll be less likely to grab unhealthy snacks at random times.
- Phone a friend who can help you process your emotions at that moment.
- Focus on what you are eating, and eat small bites. Chewing at least ten times before swallowing can help.
Recognizing and curbing your emotional eating is hard work, but analyzing your emotions is an excellent opportunity to get more in touch with yourself. As you become more self-aware, you'll develop healthier habits, experience a better quality of life, and perhaps even lose some extra weight!
We recommend scheduling a visit to a doctor or a nutritionist if your eating habits are out of your control and negatively impacting your day to day.