November 19, 2009

Want Fries With That Mood?

(Photo: PerantauSepiLodge)

Spaghetti with tomato loss. Big Mac with a large order of sighs. A balonely and cheese sandwich on rye - extra mayo. Chicken bored 'n bleu. Stir cry. Fish and Dips. Angers and mash (UK and Python fans only).

Are you finding that you're using food for something more than nutrition lately? Or maybe it's not really a new phenomenon with you. Maybe you were rewarded/comforted/bribed/motivated with food as a kid and it has morphed into your current diet and mindset. Maybe it's not so much of a stretch for you to equate food with love and comfort. So it shouldn't come as a big surprise that sometimes we find ourselves using food as a coping device for emotions we're not ready to handle and have gotten into a bad habit of suppressing with food. Welcome to the world of emotional eating - population: big and getting bigger.

So how can you tell if your hunger is emotional and not physical? There are some signs that can help make the distinction for you.

- Emotional hunger comes on very suddenly whereas physical hunger is a more gradual build.

- When it's an emotional craving, it is generally for a very specific food. With physical hunger, your range of options is broader - you're just looking to quell the hunger but are not so specific with what.

- Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be sated immediately. It stands in front of the microwave and screams, "HURRY UP!!" Physical hunger says, "Ummm..yeah, I could eat" and then proceeds in an orderly fashion to fix something up.

- Feeling full is never a sign to stop when eating emotionally. You will just barrel right through that stop sign and keep punching that gas pedal. If you're physically hungry, you'll come to a full and complete stop when full.

- Emotional hunger starts from the "neck up" - it's your mouth and mind that are dictating what you eat. Physical hunger relies on the stomach to tell you when to eat.

- Eating emotionally is tied in with, well, an emotion - your boss was a real jerk today, you fought with your spouse, your neighbor's dog is barking non-stop. Physical hunger is tied in with a physical need to nourish the body.

- Automatic, compulsive eating is emotional. If you're eating without thinking, your emotions are running the show. Physical feeding is more deliberate and thoughtful.

- And when all is said and done (or eaten and drunk), there will be guilt and shame after having eaten emotionally. Sure, there's that itch that's been scratched right away but then we experience real negative emotions for having overdone it - again. Physical hunger recognizes that you're eating to survive and as such, there are no feelings of shame or guilt. Eating is as necessary as sleeping and breathing.

Even the most psychologically evolved of us can lapse into eating emotionally once in a while but if eating turns out to be your main coping device, you could be headed for trouble; especially when the foods tend to be more of the unhealthy variety. I can personally attest to never having overeaten carrots or kale. In addition, eating when it is non-physically necessary can also add up to a lot of excess calories consumed which in turn lead to...anyone? Anyone? Bueller?...becoming overweight.

The good news is that you can do something about curbing this feeling feeding frenzy. I used to visit a nutritionist until my health insurance changed and it wasn't covered anymore. Apparently this insurance company's take was that it was better for me (and more cost effective to them) to continue on cholesterol reducing statins rather than pursuing a preventive solution to my problem, but I digress. The nutritionist suggested that when the impulse to eat arose suddenly (a sign of emotion-driven hunger) I should ask myself whether or not I physically felt hungry. Was my stomach growling? Had it been hours since my last meal? If the answer was no, she told me to avoid food for ten minutes, to "sit with the emotions" and try to identify what was really driving this hunger. She also advised that the emotions may not be readily available right away, which I found to be true, but that they were there. It took a lot of sitting still and really thinking about things until the emotions slowly came to the surface. Once I could recognize the underlying emotions, I was better able to short-circuit the unnecessary grazing to help soothe those emotions and learn to deal with them head-on.

She also suggested that once I recognized the onset of emotional hunger, I should try to distract myself with another activity like reading, knitting, talking on the phone, etc. (Cooking or baking is not recommended, Forrest.) Another idea was to keep a journal to record my hunger and the related emotions to figure out what, or who, was behind this urge. Identifying and avoiding emotional triggers can be very helpful in defeating emotional eating.

Stop letting the clock dictate when you're hungry was another smart tip from my nutritionist. If the clock says noon but you're not hungry yet, don't force the issue. Eat when you start to get a little hungry - whether that's before or after The Stated Meal Time. She cautioned against letting the hunger get too far ahead of me, though, in which case I might start tearing apart the kitchen like a ravenous dog, consuming vast quantities of food and Alpo. Planning meals ahead of time can help diffuse the stress of being hungry and clueless.

There's also a terrific author by the name of Geneen Roth who has written extensively about emotional eating with a real "been there, done that" approach should you want to explore the emotional connection to food more extensively. She also writes a monthly column for Good Housekeeping magazine.

How much of the time do you think your hunger is being driven by emotion? And what, if anything, are you doing to correct that?


  1. oh goodness Gigi I love you! I'm awful about emotional/scheduled eating.. maybe i should go on a field trip with the Wee One (and i don't eat in the car!) and find that book... what's the title?

  2. I'm the opposite of the normal emotional eater; I only eat when I'm happy. Otherwise it's candy for dinner.

  3. I've read all of Roth's books. She's great, very down to earth. Thanks for your post. It's obvious you struggle with this type of eating and then ten minute wait is a good tip.

  4. Lillian's Mom - I've read "When Food is Love" which goes back a few years. A more current title which I haven't read is "Breaking Free from Emotional Eating". should have a complete listing of all her books. I hope that helps.

  5. I've struggled with emotional eating for a very long time. It's something that I've had to really work at, and not "give in" to my cravings. Most of the time I want pop and sugar, though there are times I want the burger and fries.

  6. Hold me...I feel vulnerable after reading that!

    Thanks so much for the insight.

  7. I am very aware of my emotional eating... pissed off, upset, hormones.. I know it. Luckily with years on this, I have learned the coping mechanisms that work for me. I always tell myself to take 10-15 minutes to think it thru & why.. I know already. If I make the decision to have the cookie anyway, I do it & stop there but I know what I am doing & I know how to stop at 1 or 2. It is a long process to get to this point though. I also distract myself by doing something else as you mentioned.

  8. The worst thing is (and very few people cover this) is emotional eating overload...

    I've been told I emotionally overeat SO OFTEN that I'm no longer able to recognize real hunger; I'm no longer ever NOT GUILTY when I eat (regardless of how healthy it is).

    I spend entirely too much time saying to myself "am I hungry? really? Yes, no?" to worry about whether or not I AM hungry.

    When I stress out because I ate 1/3 a package of hummus and some carrots after dinner, seriously, it's taking this WAAAAY too far.

  9. This post really spoke to me. I have been en emotional eater for as long as I can remember. I experienced every single one of the symptoms you mentioned. My fix? I recently stopped taking birth control and it was like hitting a wall. The emotional cravings are gone. I still want to eat crappy foods but it's easier to tell myself "no" and wait for a real meal.

  10. Emotional eating was my main form of coping back when I was obese. To change that I started to actually open up to my loved ones instead of bottling up everything that bothered or stressed me out. I also have learned to identify when I am truly hungry. It has not been an easy road and I do have moments where I give in to emotional eating but for the most part I have in managed. Once I got it managed I was able to reclaim my physical body and get healthy.

  11. Great advice Gigi! It's such a common and frustrating issue for so many.

    I sometimes eat when not truly hungry, if I'm tempted by some handy treat, but for me it's not a chronic issue (thank god). In fact, if I'm feeling upset about something, it makes me less hungry, not more. Never realized how fortunate I was!

    I think it's such great advice to buy yourself 10 minutes or so to figure out what's really going on before succumbing to sudden cravings. If it's truly hunger, it will still be there in 10 minutes!

  12. It's hard sometimes to separate the "emotion" from the physical need. Our tastebuds are so sensitive to certain types of food. They're hardwired to the brain, stimulating the pleasure spots. I bet the pleasure signals can be so strong as to override any hunger signals that the brain is also supposed to process. It's physiological.

    Great post and book recommendation!

  13. how true! my emotional eating is so predictable. certain moods are even connected with specific foods. i've been able to suppress hunger with these meal replacement shakes that tastes like the foods i crave - chocolate!

  14. I am completely an emotional eater. I will eat to placate myself, when I'm full...even bored.
    It's a constant issue with me.

    I'll have to look this up...

  15. Oh yeah. I have had a major issue with emotional eating. To counter it I make myself sit and FEEL the feelings. It's a battle some days but I am getting better.

  16. Eating can be an addicition and like all addictions you have to find an subsitute. Such as if you are a chain smoker they say chew gum. Here is a food for thought. Whenever I am hungry I find a project and say to myself I can not eat anything until I finish this project. Sice I am a woman I usually find another project before I even finish the first one and then 3 hrs have passed and it is time to eat. So many times we eat becuase we are bored or habit. Find a new HOBBY!!!

  17. My hubby and I both eat in the evening when we are bored ot stressed. My solution when I am really trying to "behave" is to do counted cross stitch - I have to concentrate on it and my hands have to be clean so no eating! If I am not eating hubby is less likely to as well

  18. I think boredom eating is a big part of emotional eating. Sure, plenty of people try to eat their sadness, but my issue has always been boredom.

    If I can't think of anything I want to do, my brain automatically thinks of the food I could eat in the house. For that 5 or ten minutes, I now have something to do and my brain is stimulated.

    Really I just think I need a hobby. I mean, sitting for 10 minutes is a good tip, but if I'm already bored, this doesn't solve much. I just sit there and my mind goes back to the fact that I have nothing to do and the cycle starts all over again.

  19. Very well put. The cravings thing was a new idea to me—but it's totally true. If I'm really hungry, I can eat just about anything. If I'm emotionally eating, I get fixated on one food and am not satisfied until I've had it.

  20. Thanks for this post, I'm so with you here. I just started the Beck Diet Solution on Sunday which hits this problem head on. I'm really stressing at the thought of not being able to go out and have a cheeseburger and fries and beer (it's REALLY not on her plan). I love the idea of eating uncontrollably, even though when I'm doing it I feel like crap. So it's almost like I'm addicted to the IDEA of eating too much. (Dang, maybe I need therapy!)

  21. Really good post.
    I think it's important to note that emotional eating doesn't just stem from negative emotions. A lot of people do it when they are happy too.
    I know when I'm happy and just accomplished something major, I just want to keep eating until I'm in food coma status.


Thanks for commenting, Cranky Fitness readers are the BEST!

Subscribe to comments via RSS

(Note: Older Comment Threads Are Moderated)