This guest blog post was written by Clinical Psychologist Dr. Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS.
Disclaimer: the information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not designed to replace individualized recommendations from a practitioner. Always check with your doctor before adding supplements or making changes to your treatment plan.
Life happens and unfortunately we live in a society of high stress, but it is important to remember what is in our control and what is out of our control.
We can’t always control others or what is going on in the world, but we can control our thoughts and our reactions to others. Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all linked.
So, by changing the way we think and act, we can affect the way we feel.
"There is a difference between physiological hunger and emotional hunger."
Emotional Eating 101
1. Introduction to Emotional Eating
People use food for a variety of reasons, including social and emotional reasons.
How many times have you had a stressful day and just grabbed the first thing you saw in the kitchen?
How many times have you celebrated something and gone out to eat?
How many times have you been upset or emotional, even during your menstrual cycle, and grabbed that pint of ice cream or chocolate bar?
How about watching television and before you know it the bag of chips is gone?
All of these are examples of emotional eating, which is more common than you probably think, but unfortunately is also one of the many reasons people continue to struggle with their weight or have difficulties meeting their health and wellness goals.
2. Why Does Emotional Eating Happen?
Typically when emotional eating happens people don’t just sit down and eat their healthy prepared meal. Instead, emotional eating is more impulsive.
Not only is eating this extra food typically tied to extra calories, participating in this behavior is often accompanied by guilt, frustration, and weight gain.
Typically, the food people eat out of an emotion is “comfort food” or unhealthy food, so most likely you are not actually gaining extra nutrients from these foods.
So then the question is why are you doing it?
Emotional eating is simply eating out of an emotion, as opposed to eating out of true hunger. There is a difference between physiological hunger (not eating for several hours and being hungry and/or not eating the right foods to fill you up and keep you satisfied) and emotional hunger (out of happiness, loneliness, sadness, stress, or even boredom).
3. Emotional Hunger Vs. Physiological Hunger
The first step is to be able to differentiate these two types of hunger and identify which hunger you have each time.
Here are some ways to help you differentiate between emotional hunger and true physiological hunger:
- Onset: Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, whilst physiological hunger occurs gradually.
- Specific Food Cravings: When you are eating out of an emotion you most likely crave a specific food, such as comfort foods (pizza, ice cream, chocolate) and ONLY the food you are craving will make you feel satisfied. When you eat because you are actually hungry, you will eat what is available, because, if not, you will starve.
- Timing: When you are eating out of an emotion you feel like you MUST eat right this second, while physiological hunger can wait, perhaps until dinner is ready.
The main one from my perspective (and being a psychologist) is:
- Guilt: Emotional eating leaves you with feelings of guilt, while physiological hunger does not. This then could cause a downward spiral of emotions and behaviors and would not leave you anywhere, but in a bad place (i.e. feel worse, then eat more, then feel worse, etc.)
4. Period-Specific Emotional Eating
- Step One: Identify this feeling as a craving or emotional hunger.
- Step Two: If you have identified it as emotional hunger and not physiological hunger, try out the tips outlined in the next section.
Tips to Conquer Emotional Eating and Cravings
1. Take A Time-out
If you find yourself in the kitchen opening and closing cabinets or the in the refrigerator frantically looking for food, tell yourself to stop.
Just like kids become impulsive and may act-out when they are emotional, we as adults also act-out, but in different ways; perhaps by grabbing food.
So, take a time-out.
Take a few minutes before grabbing food and ask yourself "why am I in here," "when is the last time I ate," and “what is going on” (perhaps you are bored, stressed, or even pre-menstrual and having some cravings).
These questions will help you understand what is really going on.
If you recently ate, you are probably not physiologically hungry at this time. If you are able to identify you are upset, stressed, bored, etc. then you can ask yourself if eating is really going to solve the problem.
2. Think About A Distraction and Substitute A Healthier Behavior
Hopefully you will have done this prior to the next time you find yourself in the kitchen looking for food, but ideally I always tell everyone to have a handful of distraction techniques or coping mechanisms at the ready.
It is important to have more than one in your arsenal, because one is not always going to work for you.
For instance, if you say you will call a friend, that friend may not be free when you call. Or if your go to behavior is to take a walk and on the day that you need it, the weather is bad.
Therefore, it is always good to have a few options.
Think about what is realistic for YOU to do in these situations. Actually sit down and consider “will I really do that the next time I am in this situation?”
I can give you recommendations and tell you what I do, but what may work for some may not work for others and the idea is to not get stuck in this situation and not know what to do.
So, it is important to think about this ahead of time and identify a few healthier behaviors you can participate in and use as coping mechanisms.
Common Coping Behaviors:
- Taking a walk.
- Making a phone call.
- Reading a book.
In about 10 minutes, after doing something else, you will probably be distracted and no longer be thinking about the food, which would be further evidence that you were not physiologically hungry.
On the other hand, if you are still thinking about food, then you are either truly hungry or you really want it. Regardless, that time in between allowed you to make a healthy choice that was not impulsive, which will most likely not lead to feelings of guilt.
3. Do You Really Want It or Do You Need It?
This one works for some people as well.
If you are able to stop and take that time-out, ask yourself if you really want it or if you need it?
We don’t need ice cream, cookies, cakes, etc, but occasionally we really want those things.
If you are able to identify that you don’t need the food, but you really just want it, you have thought about it and accepted that you will have just a little, then go for it.
BUT remember that our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are linked, so if you make the conscious decision to eat a scoop of ice cream (and it was not an impulsive act out of an emotion), then you need to accept it and move on.
By making this conscious and educated decision you are most likely not going to have the negative feeling, such as feeling bad or guilty, after the act of eating the food. If you do feel bad or guilty, you need to use self-talk and remind yourself that you made the decision to do it, you did it, and now it is over and done with.
Accept it and move on.
I tend to tell my clients that the thought that follows the behavior is actually more important when it comes to long-term success than the behavior itself in these situations.
So, if you can be okay with what you ate and move on (and not wait until the next day or next week to get back on track) then you are doing great, BUT if you hold onto what happened, then you are going to feel bad about it, feel like a failure, and most likely “throw in the towel” and say something like “I might as well just eat the rest of it,” which becomes a vicious cycle.
The key is to conquering emotional eating is to take a time out to identify what is really going on and then make a smart, educated choice.
Remember that food will NOT solve your problems and food is NOT the answer, but we DO need food to survive.
You CAN find other ways to make yourself feel better in the moment (if you are not physiologically hungry). It WILL pass and you WILL feel better by being healthy.
We eat to live, we don’t live to eat. So, if nothing else, make the healthier choice!
Dr. Rachel Goldman (PhD, FTOS) is a Clinical Psychologist licensed in New York specializing in health and wellness. She is Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. She currently maintains a private practice in NYC where she sees individual clients specifically related to weight management and behavior change. She also does corporate consulting and organizes and hosts wellness events. Prior to starting her private practice she was Senior Psychologist at Bellevue Center for Obesity and Weight Management. She has been quoted in several health-related articles, including in TIME, the New York Times, Huffington Post, SHAPE and Women’s Health magazine. She continues to be an expert guest on Sirius XM Doctor Radio, and her work was highlighted in the June 2016 APA Monitor on Psychology . She serves on many professional committees and speaks at national conferences related to the behavioral aspects of obesity and weight management. She believes anyone can have a healthy lifestyle and it all starts with making one small change today.
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