Do you ever find yourself standing in front of an open refrigerator or pantry looking for something to eat only to realize you don’t actually feel hungry? You may be experiencing emotional hunger rather than physical hunger and eating for reasons other than to nourish your body. Deciphering between emotional and physical hunger is a very difficult, yet important skill. Emotional hunger means you’re eating to feed a feeling. The feeling could be positive or negative. You may identify that you’re eating because of sadness, boredom, loneliness or stress. You may also be eating due to feelings of excitement or positive feelings associated with events such as holidays. Eating for emotional reasons has a negative effect on overall health, weight and well-being.
The tricky part about emotional eating is that often, people don’t even realize that they are eating for emotional reasons. Along with being connected to both positive and negative emotions, emotional eating can also be a learned behavior. If you were conditioned to get a piece of candy after visiting the doctor’s office you will learn to want a piece of candy for comfort. These learned behaviors often begin in childhood and become very hard behaviors to break as they continue on into adulthood. If you have children, avoid rewarding or punishing with food.
Deciphering between emotional and physical hunger requires using a hunger scale to assess your feelings of hunger. After assessing your state of hunger you must take the time to think before automatically reaching for food. If this is a problem for you, it may help to journal your feelings when you determine that you are not physically hungry. By recording how you’re feeling at the times when you’re reaching for food, you will be able to identify what triggers your emotional eating. If you have a child that you feel is eating for emotional reasons, teach them to utilize the hunger scale as well. Snack times are a great opportunity to practice using the hunger scale. Snacking can easily become a learned behavior especially when you’ve become accustomed to an after-school snack or maybe a late afternoon snack while at work.
After utilizing the hunger scale it’s important to create a plan for when you determine that you or your child is eating for emotional reasons. Have a list readily available of activities that can help you cope with your emotions. (This is a great time to get your daily physical activity in!). Your list of activities can include cleaning, reading, coloring, working on a puzzle, listening to music, calling or texting a friend as well as any form of physical activity like walking, running, riding a bike, or even ice skating.
Next time you find yourself staring into the refrigerator desperate to eat something; pause to assess your hunger. With practice, using the hunger scale will become second nature. You’ll be better at identifying your emotions and you’ll avoid consuming unnecessary calories.
Amanda Haag RD/ LD