How Do I Know When I’m Hungry?

Dr. Jamie Long | Ft. Lauderdale Psychologist

Imagine you’re sitting on the couch enjoying a cozy night at home when you see a commercial advertising scrumptious looking cookies. Suddenly you have a severe hankering for some chocolate chips. Where did that come from? Are you really hungry or just impacted by the power of suggestion and advertising? This all-too-familiar scenario has many of us questioning how to tell when we are truly hungry or dealing with an emotional craving that leads to emotional eating.

Oftentimes food cravings caused by emotions are confused as physical hunger cues. Food is tangled with many emotions in our culture such as boredom, celebration, pleasure, reward, etc. Most people can relate to noshing on a little something when there’s nothing else to do and that’s okay. Emotional eating by and of itself is NOT a bad thing. We all emotionally eat, and it’s okay. But if emotional eating is impacting your happiness or your health, it’s important to learn how to recognize the difference between emotional and physical hunger.

What is Emotional Eating?

The term emotional eating is often used interchangeably with compulsive overeating and food addiction. Regardless of what you call it, emotional eating describes a behavioral pattern of ignoring physical cues of hunger and satiety and eating in response to an emotion. Emotional eaters may engage in frequent episodes of uncontrolled eating, or binge eating, during which he or she may feel out of control — often consuming food past the point of being comfortably full. Emotional eaters may also engage in grazing behavior, (eating continuously throughout the day) resulting in a high number of calories consumed even if the quantities eaten at any one time may be small.

How to tell the difference between emotional and physical hunger:

  • Emotional hunger comes on suddenly; physical hunger comes on gradually
  • Emotional eating tends to be more mindless (in front of the TV, computer, while playing on a gadget)
  • Physical hunger is usually felt in the gut, with a growling stomach or nausea. Emotional hunger comes more from the head (fantasizing about the taste of a particular food item)
  • Emotional food cravings are usually specific; physical hunger is open to various food options
  • Emotional eating passes the point of fullness (satiety) and often results in negative emotional and physcial feelings (guilt, shame, bloat, etc.)

How to Combat Emotional Eating

Most people emotionally eat, and that’s okay! We’re hard-wired to enjoy food and sometimes we eat when we’re not hungry, it’s not a big deal. Don’t beat yourself up if this blog post describes your behaviors. However, if emotional eating has interfered with your quality of life in some way, here are some ideas for what you can do about it.

  • Identify your triggers. Take notice of the times you tend to crave food. What time of day is it? How long has it been since you last ate? What are you feeling and what is going on around you?
  • Have a competing response ready before cravings begin. If you notice that you tend to feel hungry when you are bored, think of something pleasurable to do instead of going for another helping of food. Eating is a rewarding behavior and it can be overused when we feel deprived of life’s pleasures. Think of a handful of enjoyable things to do that don’t include food.
  • Add more tools for coping. Find ways to cope with feelings rather than using food as a way of soothing. Make peace with all foods and challenge negative internal/external messages about eating. Nurture yourself and strive for a balanced and rewarding life with breaks from stress. And as always, make sure you are getting enough rest & exercise.

What is Normal & Healthy Eating?

In short, normal eating is nourishing your body with nutrient-rich foods and enjoying treats free of guilt. Normal eating is honoring your hunger and fullness. Normal eating is flexible (it’s okay to have cake!) and it is also responsible. Healthy eaters do not restrict or abuse food, they walk the middle path.

In my counseling of those who struggle with disordered eating patterns, several specialists ascribe to a non-diet nutrition philosophy called Intuitive Eating. I.E. is based on the belief that most people instinctually know how to eat. It emphasizes an adaptive relationship between food, mind, and body by making peace with food and normalizing eating patterns. Intuitive Eaters recognize and distinguish the difference between physical and emotional feelings and maintain a stable, healthy weight without depriving themselves or overindulging in food. Two dieticians — Evenly Tribole and Elyse Resch — coined the phrase Intuitive Eating in their 1995 book which is now in its third edition. Click here to learn more.

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