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Hunger doesn’t always begin in your stomach; your mind can be an equally powerful trigger when it comes to the urge to eat.

Many people “feel hungry” when they feel a need to numb certain emotions or to ease feelings of discomfort, but this sort of hunger has nothing to do with providing your body with energy or satisfying cravings. It is a powerful psychological hunger that takes on a life of its own and exerts control over your behaviour. It can lead to serious weight control problems, and unhappiness.

Of course, there is no such thing as a “quick fix” for this emotional eating, but with practice, patience and support, you can learn to control the urges and reassess your eating habits.

What is emotional eating?

When you use food in response to situations or feelings that make you feel uncomfortable or dissatisfied, it’s called emotional eating. Does this scenario sound familiar?

You’ve had an awful day at work. A co-worker claims you’re responsible for a mistake you know he made and your boss wants to speak to you about it tomorrow. You’re so angry about it, but you can’t argue for fear of getting fired. When you get home, you open the refrigerator. You’re not really hungry, but you feel like eating something. You look around. There are some carrots. No, you don’t want those. Celery? No, that’s not it. Ice cream? YES! Maybe you’ll have just a little. Mmmm, it’s good. Perhaps you’ll have a little more… Before you know it, you’ve finished the entire tub.

In situations like this, something happens while you’re eating to make you feel relief. Although you’re not consciously aware of it, for a brief moment all negative feelings are numbed, and for just a few moments you feel soothed.

Of course, many people occasionally engage in eating that has nothing to do with physical hunger, but is prompted by emotions or situations. For example, on your best friend’s birthday you might eat a piece of cake to be sociable, even if you’re not hungry. Or when you’re bored, you might treat yourself to a couple of your favourite biscuits. This occasional use of food to celebrate or comfort is okay. However, if you frequently eat when stressed, bored, or upset, then your emotional eating is problematic.

Am I an emotional eater?

Emotional eating can be viewed on a continuum. Rare occurrences of emotional eating are not a problem, but repeat episodes do require attention, and severe emotional eating usually requires the insight and help of an eating disorders specialist. Viewing emotional eating on a continuum then, the question is: Where do you fit in – is your emotional eating rare, occasional or constant? If you almost always use food in one or more of the following situations it is likely that your emotional eating is problematic:

  • I turn to food when I am frustrated
  • I eat after an argument
  • When I feel bad about myself, I eat to make myself feel better
  • When I am bored, I eat too much
  • If I anticipate a lonely weekend, I stock up on junk food
  • I keep eating even after I am full
  • When I feel unappreciated, I eat lots of junk food
  • I eat when I am depressed or down
  • I eat when I don’t know what else to do
  • I eat junk food when I am feeling uncertain

Gaining control through fulfilment

Emotional eating is ultimately about a lack of fulfilment. When you are unsatisfied with your life or yourself and don’t feel worthy, you eat to fill the absence and to distract yourself from your discontent. The best answer to emotional eating, then, is finding fulfilment and learning to be happy with yourself and your life. Easier said than done, of course, but here are some pointers in the right direction:

  • Turn to others – Instead of always trying to meet your needs yourself, learn to ask for help. Isolation and emotional eating go hand in hand, so keep in touch with supportive friends and family, and don’t be afraid to reach out when you’re struggling.
  • Fake it ‘til you make it  There’s surprising power in pretending. Get out of the “I have no control” mode and get into “I do have control of my life and eating habits” mode. Even if you don’t believe it at first, your self-talk has a way of catching up to your behaviour.
  • Find purpose and meaning – Make sure your life is filled with things that mean more to you than food. Maintain good friendships, take an art or music course, volunteer for a charity organisation, campaign for a cause you believe in – anything that gives you a feeling of purpose and connection with the rest of the world.
  • Be thankful – At the end of each day, list three things you’re thankful for. You won’t need food to feel better if you are fulfilled, having fun, experiencing a sense of purpose, and staying aware of the small pleasures in your life.

Gaining control by understanding yourself

Awareness begins when you “get in touch” with your feelings and how they relate to your eating habits. A great way to do this is to maintain a daily journal.

  • When you write in your journal, identify the situation and the feeling that makes you want to eat. For example: “When John yells at me, I feel ______.” If you can’t identify the feeling, state that, write down, “I don’t really know what I am feeling.”
  • List the foods you eat for each situation. Write down how you feel both before and after an eating episode.
  • Be aware of the physical damage of your emotional eating by writing how many calories and excess grams of fat you eat during an emotional eating episode alongside your description of the eating episode.
  • Remember to be kind to yourself. Your journal is an opportunity to become more aware of your feelings, thoughts and actions, not an opportunity to punish or judge yourself harshly.
  • Be sure to finish every journal entry with a positive reminder of your worth. Help to change your self-talk by writing something like: “I accept myself in my entirety, just the way I am today, even though [I overate; ate compulsively etc].”

Remember that although the associations between food, comfort and security are largely subconscious, the actual decision to eat is always a conscious choice. There is always an all-important moment when you make the decision to eat. Be aware of that moment, and the choice you have at that point in time.

Gaining control through action

Action starts when you decide to resist eating in response to a difficult emotion or situation. It’s helpful to have a list of instantly effective methods of control for when your emotional “hunger” hits. You can build up a repertoire of “band-aid” mantras or strategies which help you refrain from eating and write them in your journal. For example:

  • When I feel angry I will not eat. I will listen to some music.
  • When I feel lonely I will not eat. I will treat myself with a candlelit bubble bath.
  • When I am worried about something, I will not eat. Instead, I will go for a walk.
  • When I am disappointed about something, I won’t eat chocolate cake. I will drink a cup of my favourite tea.

Other diversions might include calling a friend, going to a movie, gardening, or doing some housework.

Although it is important to control your eating, you don’t need to deprive yourself. Limit, but do not eliminate, some of the foods you crave. When you crave a piece of chocolate, first ask yourself if you really want it. If the answer is yes, then enjoy a couple of pieces. Eating balanced and delicious meals containing enough fat, protein and carbohydrates will also help satisfy you nutritionally and physiologically, and minimise cravings.

Exercise is another excellent way to manage emotional eating. To keep excess weight off and calm the emotional storms that compel you to eat, try taking a daily 30-minute walk or even going for a stroll when the emotional hunger hits.

Calorie King
CalorieKing's mission is to provide the best information, tools and education to Australians to help them conquer their weight.

CalorieKing is the brainchild of Allan Borushek, registered dietitian, co-found here at food.com.au and author of "Allan Borushek's Pocket Calorie & Fat Counter", Australia's best-selling calorie counter for over 30 years.
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