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Is it Emotional Eating or True Hunger?

Aug 20 2021
6 min read
overhead view of woman writing in notebook next to laptop with bowl of yogurt next to her

Canyon Ranch Mental Health & Wellness Therapist Robbie Bogard, provides the top causes of emotional eating and solutions to overcome its triggers.

Think back to the last time you put food in your mouth: While you may have been truly hungry, it’s also possible that emotional eating prompted you to head to the refrigerator. Food is our source of nourishment — a means of sustaining our energy and good health. But we can all relate to sometimes eating to alleviate pangs of loneliness, quell anger, beat boredom or cater to other feelings. While food may seem to help address what’s bothering you, it does its best work feeding your body — not your emotions.

“We are all vulnerable to emotional eating,” explains Robbie Bogard, MA, LICSW at Canyon Ranch, Lenox. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers these guidelines for recognizing behaviors that can lead to emotional eating:

  • If you have trouble managing your emotions, you are more likely to use food as a coping mechanism.
  • Being unhappy with your body makes you more prone to emotional eating. This is true for both men and women.
  • Dieting can put you at risk. If you feel deprived of food, you may become frustrated and tempted to emotionally eat.

You may have already realized that any benefit emotional eating seems to give you is usually short lived. It’s also not uncommon to look back and regret food choices that you made when your feelings (not your stomach) directed your dining. Emotional eating can be hard to catch in the moment, but learning some of the ways it can be distinguished from real physical hunger may help raise your awareness so that you can work to adopt new, more effective ways to attend to your feelings the next time around.

You May Be Emotional Eating If...

Your eating has a trigger: Your boss criticized you. Your child is in trouble at school. Your first response to a stressful, disappointing or otherwise challenging situation is to head to the kitchen. Physical hunger makes itself known because it has been some time since your last meal, most likely four hours or so.

Your hunger is “above the neck” and comes on fast: Your mind and mouth guide you when you are emotional eating. One taste of that rich chocolate bar and I’ll feel all better, for example. One minute you’re going about your business, the next, you are “starving.” Real hunger is, instead, rooted in the stomach. It rumbles ever so slightly. An hour later, it growls. Your body sends you steady, progressive clues that you need to eat.

You can’t wait to eat: You’re looking for anything to eat, as long as you can have it right this minute. When you are physically hungry, you would like to eat as soon as possible, but you are amenable to the reality that it might be better to wait (say, until your spouse can join you for dinner).

You only have eyes for one food: You want chips—and only chips. You crave them and become laser focused. True hunger, on the other hand, tends to leave you more flexible: You may have preferences, but you are open to alternatives. The goal is simply to be fed.

Curbing Emotional Eating

Food brings us joy and is part of many celebrations, and it indeed can be a positive part of your day in harder times. “But relying on food to fill a void or improve a problem will likely leave you unsatisfied at best, and at worst having more upsetting emotions for eating when you weren’t actually hungry,” says Bogard. “To top it off, those same triggering emotions and problems are still there.” No quick tip can help you solve emotional eating — it takes time and effort. But these suggestions can get you started:

Keep a journal: Many are familiar with writing down what they eat, say, when trying to lose weight. But jotting down your meals and snacks, along with how you felt when you ate and what was happening at that time, may help you more clearly see patterns of emotional eating. “You may notice that you always eat ice cream after you squabble with your partner,” explains Bogard. “Knowing this, you can come up with a healthy alternative in advance: You can vow to take a walk after a spat instead of heading to the freezer.”

Check in with yourself: Before you eat, ask yourself: Where does this hunger originate, my head or my stomach? If the answer is the former, consider what you really need at that moment. Talking with a caring friend or watching a funny television show is sure to be more helpful than some cheese puffs.

Look for other ways to control stress: Yoga, tai chi and meditation are all relaxation tools that can help keep you calm, which may make it easier to avoid turning to food for stress management.

Be mindful of your emotions: Check in with yourself regularly to see how you are feeling, suggests Bogard. “This can actually help feelings to come and go, rather than sticking around and building up to stress,” she says. “Think of your feelings as information for what you want or need. Then you can take healthy action to address the emotions.” A good example is if you notice loneliness and then you call a friend to hang out.

Stay busy: Have go-to activities to turn to when you find yourself twiddling your thumbs. Head to the gym, run errands or dust the living room. Eating out of sheer boredom is a lot less likely if you have something occupying your attention.

This article has been updated on February 2, 2022.

Headshot of Robbie Bogard, MA, LICSW at Canyon Ranch Lenox

About the Expert

Headshot of Robbie Bogard, MA, LICSW at Canyon Ranch Lenox

Robbie Bogard

MA, LICSW, Mental Health & Wellness Therapist

Robbie is a seasoned therapist of 30 years, with specialties in trauma recovery, women’s issues, stress management, mindfulness, and relationship with food. She uses the latest research in neuroscience, attachment styles, and mind-body connection to help people better understand their patterns of behavior and make the changes they desire.

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