Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger

Most adults have had experiences with emotional eating.

While no single definition exists for emotional eating it can be explained as eating in response to feelings (emotional hunger) rather than the physical need to eat and nourish the body (physical hunger). Emotional eating is often linked to various triggers such as stress, fear, anxiety, tension, boredom, fatigue anger, and loneliness. Although people can say they also eat in response to positive feelings and events, this is generally not categorized as emotional eating.

The concern with eating in response to emotions is that people tend to overeat, consume too many calories and often choose foods that are nutrient-poor. A belief is that some foods may have addictive qualities and cause a release of hormones that promote a feeling of wellbeing and satisfaction. The pleasure of eating replaces some negative feelings so if there is a relationship with food(s) that bring pleasure, they will seek out these foods in an emotional moment. This relationship becomes a habit and the cycle can be challenging to break.

Another thought is that food can be a distraction from negative feelings and emotions. While consuming food that brings satisfaction it’s easier not to think of the triggers that cause them to overeat. The concern with this is that the distraction is short-lived, and people end up in a similar state that brought them to use food to cope. It’s not uncommon for additional negative emotions such as guilt and concerns about health and weight management.

If you struggle with identifying whether your hunger is physical or due to emotional response review the chart below and healthy coping mechanisms when you’re in an emotional moment.

There are many other ways to cope or respond in an emotional moment. Identifying eating emotional triggers is important in identifying why and how extra calories are consumed. Once identified, the next step is to come up with a plan of action to break the cycle and adopt new coping mechanisms.  Some suggestions include:

  • Go on a walk
  • Talk with a friend
  • Write down your feeling or start journaling
  • Play a game
  • Listen to music
  • Workout
  • Allow yourself to have some “me” time and do whatever you choose that doesn’t involve food
  • Read a good book or watch a good uplifting movie
  • Practice meditation or yoga
  • Take some deep breaths. 4×4 breathing deep inhales followed by deep exhales. This shuts off that sympathetic nervous system response (fight or flight) and turns on the parasympathetic response (rest and digest)


Meditation and Nutrition

Meditation could have a positive impact on stress, anxiety, mindless eating, reckless food choices, weight loss, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

The ancient practice of meditation involves residing in a deep state of concentration uninterrupted by thoughts. Research shows meditation has the ability to clear, calm, and focus the mind with benefits such as moderating stress response, lowering glucose levels, decreasing blood pressure, and other issues associated with cardiovascular disease. It has also been shown to increase mindfulness for weight management and eating disorders. 

The role of a dietitian includes exploring a patient’s lifestyle as it relates to their relationship with food. What you eat can strongly be influenced by emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise). It’s no surprise that food and emotion are interconnected. 

Starting off, meditation sounds challenging and downright impossible. 

Psychology Today recommends starting small with 3-5 minutes (or less). Beginners may find it strange to sit in silence with their innermost thoughts and feelings, and do nothing. Meditation does require some practice. Your mind will wander, try to maintain focus by slowing down and focusing in 60 seconds intervals. Try to focus on your breaths out or a single image. Meditation can take many forms such as mindfulness, visualization, walking meditation, or focused awareness. 

Reading, attending classes, listening to podcasts and apps can provide lots of information and guidance on mediation. Our patients have found apps like Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer to be helpful. Some informative podcasts about meditation include The Overwhelmed Brain, Meditation Minis, The Daily Mediation Podcast, and Meditation Oasis.

The value of meditation is not dependent on how much you do or how committed you are. The value of meditation is measured by how you are able to positivity impact your quality of life.


5 Types of “Mindless Eating”

Practicing healthy satiety is developing a better understanding of when you’re really hungry and when you’re not, and training yourself to avoid eating when you’re not hungry.
Here are the 5 types of “mindless eating” to avoid: 
Emotional Eating:Often the factor that drives our eating is not physical hunger but emotions such as happiness, sadness, or even boredom. Learn to tell the difference between real, physical hunger and emotional food cravings.
Spontaneous Eating:Often we eat food just because it’s there, even when we’re already full. This adds a lot of useless calories to one’s diet. The best way to avoid spontaneous eating is to eat on a regular schedule.
Unconscious Eating:Sometimes we eat without even being fully conscious that we are doing so (often in front of the TV). Food journaling is a useful tool you can use to steer clear of unconscious eating.
Habitual Eating:Eating out of habit instead of hunger is known as habitual eating. Eating on a schedule is a good thing if the schedule is sensible, but becomes a bad thing when the schedule is not sensible.
Clearing Your Plate: Sometimes we start to eat when we’re hungry and don’t stop when we’re full. Instead we keep eating until we finish the food that’s in front of us or until we are uncomfortably stuffed. The best way to avoid this type of mindless eating is to serve yourself smaller portion sizes. sg