We engage in eating behaviour as a matter of survival, every day. One must make choices about what to eat, when and how much. Before our time, our ancestors had to search and seek out any food that would provide energy and nutrients. Nowadays our choices are limitless and the convenience is at our fingertips, making these decisions more difficult and confusing; food is abundant, cheap and available in large varieties and quantities. This, coupled with the fact that eating is a fundamentally rewarding behaviour, makes it intrinsically linked to our mood and emotions.
It is not easy to know the difference between physical and emotional hunger. They may feel the same but are drastically different.
It is not easy to know the difference between physical and emotional hunger. They may feel the same but are drastically different. Is it your stomach’s way of gently reminding you that it’s time to refuel, or is it a signal that you are bored, feeding into feelings or using eating as a distraction.
You can learn to spot the different characteristics between an emotional tug for comfort and a genuine need for nourishment. With some practice, you can become the expert at decoding the meaning behind your body’s cravings.
The next time you feel intensely hungry, take a moment to ask yourself the following questions and to be mindful of where the hunger is coming from:
- Satisfaction vs. Relief
Am I looking to eat for energy and/or because my stomach is rumbling, or am I looking to relieve a strong negative emotion?
- Emotional vs Physical Hunger
What am I responding to? Physical symptoms; rumbling stomach, low energy, headache, etc, or Emotional symptoms; scared, sad, frustrated, stressed, overwhelmed, bored, lonely, etc.
- Nutritious vs. Palatable
What foods are you reaching for? Are they nutritious, nutrient dense, wholesome foods, or sugary, fast, fatty, salty foods?
- Lifelong vs. Momentary
What relationship is this building? Are you constructing a positive relationship with food or forming a relationship more with anxiety, guilt, stress, fear, etc?
Look further into the following signals to help place where your hunger is stemming from. It is helpful to walk yourself through these specific traits before reaching for your food choice. Keep track of how often you find yourself in emotional hunger as the driving force and how you handle it.
- Is Sudden: Your hunger goes from 0-60 in a short period of time. One minute you’re not thinking about food, the next minute you’re starving.
- Is for a specific food: Your cravings are for one specific type of food you feel you need; (chocolate, pasta, burger). No substitute will do!
- Is “above the neck”: An emotional based craving begins in the mind and mouth. Your mouth wants to taste that pizza and your mind swirls at the thoughts about your desired food.
- Is urgent: Emotional hunger urges you to eat now to instantly ease emotional pain with food.
- Is paired with an extreme emotion: Emotional hunger occurs in conjunction with an upsetting situation or feeling.
- Involved absent minded eating: It can feel like someone else’s hand is scooping up the ice cream into your mouth (automatic eating). You may not realize you’ve eaten an entire bag of chips (absent-minded eating).
- Does not notice or stop eating, in response to fullness: Stems from a desire to cover up certain deep feelings. You may stuff yourself with multiple helpings, even though your stomach hurts from being over-full in order to deepen troubling emotions.
- Feels guilt when or post eating: The paradox of emotional overeating is that a person eats to feel better and ends up berating themselves for what they ate.
Creating this type of awareness for which hunger you are feeding, can help head off emotional eating episodes, give you control of your cravings, help you become the expert of listening to your body signals and help you build a healthy and balanced relationship with food.
Remember, it’s okay to eat foods and treats that you love, as long as you do it mindfully!
Jacqueline Jones, founder of Heartfelt, is a passionate, relatable, high-spirited and altruistic Holistic Nutritionist and Counsellor. She is boldly forging the way our society approaches food, body image and the way we influence ourselves and each other. She is an accomplished writer, speaker, expert, teacher and counsellor.