Imagine this: You had a long day at work, you prepare supper for the family, clean, and prep for the next day. One you finally sit on the couch, you grab a bag of chips. 5 minutes later, you realize you ate the whole bag.

Or maybe you have an exam coming up that you’re stressed about. So every time you think about it, you gravitate towards food. You don’t want to eat the cookies, so you eat a fruit instead. You’re still not satisfied so you try a fruit-flavored yogurt, but you’re still thinking of those cookies you have. Next thing you know, your hand is in the box of cookies and you’re finishing everything that’s left.

Does this sound familiar?

You’re not the only one! The scenarios above are examples of emotional eating, which is a normal reaction when we feel off!

Physical vs Emotional Eating

There are many reasons why we eat: it’s been a while since we’ve had a bite to eat, our last meal wasn’t filling enough, something smells good, people around us are eating, we saw a commercial about something yummy, you drove past a great restaurant, or because we’re bored/stressed/tired/happy. However, signs of symptoms of these different types of hunger tend to be different as well. Let’s look at the difference between a physical hunger (either you haven’t had anything or a while or your last meal or snack wasn’t big enough) vs an emotional hunger (you feel bored/stressed/etc.)

Physical hunger Emotional
Tends to come on gradually and can be postponedvsFeels sudden and urgent
Can be satisfied with any foodvsCauses very specific cravings
Once full you’re likely to stop eatingvsYou tend to eat more than you normally would
Doesn’t cause feelings of guiltvsGuilty!
*Signs and symptoms can be different in your case

As you can see, by tuning into our body signals, we can be better at recognizing a physical hunger vs emotional hunger. This is the first step into deciding what we want to do about it!

Dealing with emotional hunger

Ok now what…we know that what we’re feeling is an emotional hunger, so should I ignore it? Not so fast! We saw in the above scenario that even if we try to quench that craving with something more nutritious, we still ended up with the cookies. That’s because emotional eating serves a purpose. I mean, there’s a reason why they call it comfort food! When we are eating with intention, it can actually help us deal with whatever we’re feeling, whether it’s to reduce stress, provide energy, or help us regulate our happiness. Therefore, the best way to deal with emotional eating is to bring mindfulness into the equation. Here’s how:

Before you’re about to eat ask yourself these questions:

  1. Am I hungry?
  2. Will I feel good as I’m eating this (physically and emotionally)
  3. Will I feel good immediately after (also physically and emotionally)?
  4. Will I feel good hours later( you guessed it, both physically and emotionally)

If you answered “yes” to all 4 questions, go for it. I don’t care whether you’re about to eat a salad, an apple, ice cream, or pizza. But if you’re hungry for it and it will make you feel better, do it. BUT, if you answered “no” to any of the above questions, this is where you need to have an honest conversation with yourself as to what you want and need at that time. Is it possible that something else will provide that comfort? For example, if you’re stressed, will a hot bath or calling a friend bring you that satisfaction that you’re looking for.

Still, you can answer “no” and decide to eat it anyway. And you know what? That’s OK! The goal of the questions isn’t to stop you from eating certain foods, but rather give you control over your choice. So you may not be hungry but know that cookies will make you feel better.

To go even further, continue checking using the above 4 questions as you’re eating too.

But aren’t I harming my health by eating “unhealthy” foods

Last little note here as I’m sure this question popped into your head. My short answer here is no. Sure there are foods that are more nutritious than others, but that doesn’t mean we can’t eat those that aren’t. A couple of these foods throughout the week won’t likely change anything. We can’t start feeling guilty every time we eat something we label as “unhealthy”, just like we can’t start feeling guilty for every workout we “missed”. Our health is impacted by hundreds of factors and we know that our relationship with food is one of them. So if over-analyzing your food will hurt your relationship with food, why do it?

Have any questions or comments about this? Comment below!

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