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Is it Emotional Eating or True Hunger?

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

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... 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.

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 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. 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 feeling unsatisfied (and it won’t make those issues go away, either). 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. For example, you may notice that you always eat ice cream after you squabble with your partner. Knowing this, vow to take a walk after a spat instead.

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.

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.