15 October 2021

Emotional Eating: Your Emotions May be Hungry, Not You

When you feel unhappy, sad or exhausted, do you find yourself staring at the ice cream waiting in the freezer? Do you notice an increase in the amount of junk food at home as the stress of a responsibility increases? Do you find it difficult to make sense of the intense sweet cravings that suddenly arise even though your meals are regular these days? If your answer to these and similar questions is “Yes”, it may be your feelings not your stomach that is hungry!

We all know that eating is not just about suppressing the feeling of hunger. The foods we eat have the power to fill our stomachs, relieve the feeling of hunger or provide the nutrients necessary for metabolism, as well as determine our mood and how we feel by stimulating our senses and influencing our emotions... For this reason, the feeling of hunger that arises when your stomach is not rumbling and you are sure that you have eaten enough and trying to suppress this feeling by eating is explained by the concept known as emotional eating. In other words, what triggers the desire to eat when we are not physiologically hungry is actually our emotions, not our body's energy needs.

How does emotional hunger manifest?

Emotional hunger, as is understood from its name, can be defined as the feeling of emptiness created by the emotions that have not been satisfied throughout a person's life. Emotional eating behaviour emerges with the desire to fill the void created in the emotional world by not meeting basic needs such as being loved, accepted, feeling valuable, self-confidence, success, approval and belonging to a group. With the pleasure of eating, the brain secretes more dopamine and, depending on the type of food eaten, more hormones associated with happiness such as serotonin and oxytocin are produced, making a person feel better by lifting their mood. When the behaviour of feeling better by eating is repeated constantly in unhappy and depressive moments, the person unconsciously turns it into a habit to fill the emotional void with food.

One of the most important reasons why emotional eating becomes a habit is the absence of other ways to control emotions apart from eating. Emotional eating behaviour is most evident when triggered by intense and difficult emotions such as anxiety, stress, embarrassment and fear… People who do not recognise their emotions do not know how to manage them, and those whose emotions have been ignored in the past, or who have had to suppress their emotions, tend to eat, which is the most familiar and easy relaxation method for them.

How to understand whether the source of the feeling of hunger is emotional or physical?

In order to distinguish whether the feeling of hunger is emotional or physical, it is first necessary to understand the differences between physical and emotional hunger signals. Emotional hunger can come on suddenly, while physical hunger comes on gradually, depending on the time we eat... With emotional eating, what we eat becomes much more important to us. While we are not so picky about what we eat if we are really hungry physically, we tend to gravitate towards a more specific, “desired” food such as chocolate, chips, pizza or ice cream to try to quell our emotional hunger.

While we feel that we need to be satisfied quickly by eating the food we crave at that moment with emotional eating, we can control our physical hunger much more easily and we do not see any harm in waiting until we eat. While we can stop eating when we feel full when we eat to suppress our physical hunger, when we eat to meet an emotional need, we can continue eating until we get rid of that feeling, no matter how full we are. For this reason, while we do not experience any regret or guilt after suppressing our physical hunger, we usually regret and feel guilty after the emotional eating behaviour is over.

As a result, while our body has a say in physical eating and knows very well when it is satisfied, with emotional eating, the situation can get a little more complicated because our thoughts and emotions are involved. It does not seem possible for us to control the desire to eat unless we can regulate our emotions.

Comfort foods: By the uplifting power of food!

As emotional hunger signals slowly begin to emerge, we gravitate towards certain foods, also known as “comfort food”, rather than anything that can suppress hunger, as we mentioned above. Even though we tend to gravitate towards these comforting foods that make us feel happier and reveal positive emotions when negative emotions are dominant, when we feel sad and unhappy, when we are under stress, we also reward ourselves with certain foods when we are happy, in order to experience this feeling for a longer period.

Although comfort foods may vary depending on people's preferences, the results of studies on emotional eating show that the foods we most often turn to in order to suppress emotional hunger are generally unhealthy but delicious foods such as ice cream, chocolate, cookies and pizza. For example, the results of a study published in American Demographics in 2000 show that participants who feel sad prefer sugary foods such as ice cream and cookies, and those who are bored prefer chips.

At what point does emotional eating become a problem?

We all eat for emotional reasons from time to time, but it becomes a problem when eating is the sole strategy we use to manage our emotions. Especially if the foods one chooses to eat to satisfy their emotions are not very healthy…

When we eat even though we are not physiologically hungry, we load calories far beyond what our body needs. When we do this too often, all the extra calories we take are stored as fat, and when we store too much fat, we are more susceptible to gaining excess weight and the health risks it brings.

Ways to deal with emotional eating

In order to cope with emotional eating behaviour, you need to realise what the emotional hunger signals are and when they occur the most. Lifestyle changes can help you cope with emotional hunger, such as writing an eating diary and keeping track of what you eat during the day and how you feel while you eat, observing how much your feeling of hunger decreases with each bite you take, and learning alternative strategies that can help you control your emotions. Other suggestions that can help you deal with emotional eating behaviour are as follows:

  • When you want to eat but you are sure that you are not hungry, notice how you feel, what stage of your life you are in, your mood, relationships and stress level. Make a list of these triggers if needed and carry the list with you at all times.
  • Consider healthier alternatives that can give you the happiness you seek in food when you feel bad: meeting with friends, watching a funny movie, going for a walk, playing a game, opening a random page from a favourite book and reading it again, organising your closet, cleaning, sleeping, listening to music, dancing or painting… Discover all your inner and outer resources that make you feel happy and turn to these resources as soon as the feeling of hunger strikes.
  • If you can't find any pleasure in these activities, try to find healthier alternatives to eat instead of unhealthy junk food. For example, if your comfort food is chocolate, you can choose dark and sugar-free versions, and you can feel good with low-calorie desserts that you can prepare at home with cocoa.
  • If you can't help eating comfort foods, try reducing your portions. For example, instead of consuming a large bag of chips, divide it into small storage containers and allow yourself to eat only one serving per day. If this method doesn't work either, remove these types of junk food from your shopping list so that they are not on hand.
  • Practice intuitive eating. Intuitive eating focuses on listening to the signals coming from our body, our intuition and the needs of the body in our food choices. It is one of the most effective ways to learn how to get in touch with body signals such as hunger, satiety and satisfaction with what we eat. When you understand the state of your physical hunger by listening to your body signals and the needs of the body, you will be able to notice the moments of emotional hunger and be able to control yourself more easily.
  • Know your emotions well and seek alternative strategies to manage them. If the resources you have are not enough to control your emotions, do not hesitate to seek psychological support and develop alternative emotion regulation skills.

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