We’ve got a lot of emotions.
And sometimes our response to any one of these emotions is to eat.
Happy? This moment requires a cheeseburger.
Bored? That bag of chips is calling my name.
Anxious? Maybe fixing an elaborate snack would work as a good distraction.
Stressed? Nothing will do for me at this moment except for large latte.
Sad? Ice cream will always cheer me up.
There is nothing wrong with you if you respond to emotions by eating. Most of us will do it from time to time. It’s part of the way we function together as human beings. Enjoying food together is great way to celebrate, catch up, and bond. Eating together is a fundamental aspect of relationships. However, food cannot be the only means of expressing our emotions.
Recognizing the difference between the hungers may be hard, especially if responding to various emotions by eating is something you’ve always done.
Here’s one way to test if it’s physical hunger or emotional hunger: will any type of food fill the hunger? If all you had was an apple, would that answer the hunger until you could get something more substantial? See, emotional hunger is often tied to a specific food or type of food. I know when I am bored and simply want something to fill my time (instead of homework…), I am not going to reach for celery sticks. Sure, I like celery sticks, but that’s not going to satisfy the boredom.
The problem with emotional eating is less the eating and more emotional neglect and struggle that goes along with it.
Eating will not make sadness go away. (On the opposite side of the coin, neither will restriction!!) Sadness and other emotions need to be addressed. Feeding your emotional hunger with food is like starving it. It needs to be answered with things like comfort, meditation, fulfilling jobs relationships, and reflection.
Eating in response to emotions will often lead to unnecessary guilt. Food should never, ever make us feel guilty. However, many who struggle with emotional eating will feel guilty after feeding emotional hunger with food. The guilt will lead to the worst of the emotions, shame, and then shame could lead to restriction, which will cause anxiety, which could eventually lead to another episode of emotional eating. It’s a viscous cycle.
Sometime we emotionally eat simply out of unawareness. Perhaps we’ve become detached from the being able to listen to our physical hunger and fullness cues, so we respond to any sort of hunger, physical or emotional, by eating.
Sometimes we make food our only pleasure. Perhaps we’ve forgotten the joy of sitting in the sun, reading a book, window shopping, cuddling on the couch with our loved one, going for walk, or catching up with a friend. Food is certainly a great pleasure, but too often it becomes the only one.
Sometimes we have difficulty handling our feelings. Sometimes the stress, sadness, anger, frustration can be too difficult to bear. Responding to it may feel like a huge battle while opening a bag of chips or spooning into a pint of ice cream would be much easier. Food can take our minds off of pain, but it doesn’t make the pain go away.
Sometimes we emotionally eat because we are in vicious cycle of poor body image or low self-esteem. We want to “try harder” and so we set impossible goals that lead us to fail and feel worse about ourselves.
To reduce the frequency of emotional eating (it’ll never completely go away, but that’s perfectly OK), first: stop dieting. Eat food that is satisfying and that makes you feel good so that you can live a healthy, happy life. Dieting evokes unwanted emotions and stress that will only contribute to emotional eating. Dieting causes us to focus on food constantly and we neglect the other areas in our lives.
We must feed our souls and our stomachs, depending on what is hungry at the time.
When I am happy, I can call a friend to talk about it rather than treating myself with a latte.
When I am stressed, I can step outdoors to breathe in the fresh air rather than searching for chocolate.
When I am anxious, I can spend time in prayer and do some yoga stretches rather than baking cookies.
What emotional hunger do you have that may need “feeding”?