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Do you ever find yourself turning to food for comfort when you’ve had a bad day, or maybe using food as a reward for when you’ve had a good day? Finding comfort in food is very common, this is called emotional eating. Emotional eating is when you have the desire to eat without feeling the physical sensation of hunger. Being able to distinguish the difference between these two sensations of physical and emotional hunger is important for long-term weight loss success. You may be thinking, not me, I’m not an emotional eater! Well, hate to break it to you, you probably are. Emotional eating, or experiencing emotional hunger, is completely normal! We all do it. Some more than others, but we all experience this to a certain degree.

Physical hunger

To really understand what emotional eating is, we must look at how physical hunger differs from emotional hunger. Physical hunger comes on gradually and can be postponed but tends to occur about 4 hours after you have eaten your last meal. You may experience lightheadedness or dizziness. And it can usually be satisfied with any type of food. Think, you’re so hungry, you’d be happy with a bowl of broccoli!

Emotional hunger

Emotional hunger on the other hand, can strike at any time. It is more likely to strike when you are not busy. Also, it has no relation to the last time you ate. Emotional hunger occurs suddenly and is usually associated with a specific food. Oftentimes, emotional hunger is associated with an emotion (sadness, stress, anger, anxiety, boredom) or an activity (like watching a movie or sporting event), and it tends to come on very quickly! All of a sudden you find yourself craving a specific food or beverage, which is usually some sort of comfort food.

For example, your boss pushes up a deadline for a big project which has (naturally) left you feeling very, very, stressed – so you think you’d feel better if you just took a little Starbucks run and grabbed your favorite Frappuccino. This is emotional eating. Or maybe it’s the weekend, you have no plans so you’re just hanging out at home all day and find yourself opening your refrigerator 47 times over the course of an hour. This is also emotional eating. Or after dinner you are craving Oreos but all you have in the pantry are Chips Ahoy cookies. So, you eat 6 Chips Ahoy cookies but still do not feel satisfied, because you didn’t have that Oreo: emotional eating. These feelings of hunger are “above the neck” and may cause you to eat more than you normally would and may also make you feel uncomfortably full. Emotional hunger is relentless and often leaves you feeling guilty with yourself.

Managing emotional hunger

So, what can you do about it when you have these emotional eating urges? How can you better manage your feelings so that emotional eating doesn’t hinder your weight loss goals? Keep reading.

Identify your emotional triggers

These are different for everyone! Keeping an emotional eating diary may be very helpful for you to identify what your specific triggers are. When you feel like you want to eat, first stop and take a moment to recognize what is going on in your mind and what is going on in the environment around you at that exact moment. Then write it down! This can help you identify a trend in your eating behavior, while also providing a distraction to you from eating out of impulse.

Find other outlets for your feelings that do not involve food.

If you’re feeling sad, consider calling a friend or family member, play with your dog or cat, or look through photos of happy memories. Exercise is a phenomenal treatment for sadness; while exercising our bodies release endorphins, our body’s “happiness hormone.” You don’t need to go run a marathon to reap the benefits of endorphins, talking a walk, doing some yoga, dancing around your living room, or playing with your kids can all do the trick!

If you’re having a moment of anxiety, try using a stress ball, go for a walk outdoors to remove yourself from the stressful environment, or listen or dance to your favorite music. Music can serve as a great way to connect with your emotions! Boredom is another feeling that often leads us to food. Rather than snacking, you can manage boredom by reading a good book, watching a comedy show, finding an intriguing podcast, playing a musical instrument, or finding a new hobby.

One more common emotion or feeling that draws us towards food is feeling like we “deserve” it. Think about it, how often in your childhood did your parents use food as a reward for good behavior, good grades, or to remedy a bad day? So now as an adult you notice that when you have had a bad (or a good!) day, you feel like you “deserve a treat.” Stop and think. Will this food or beverage help me reach my health and wellness goals? Will this food actually fix the frustration of my day? Most likely the answer to these questions is a resounding NO. The money you would have spent on that food or beverage could be better served in a vacation, spa-day, or date-night fund to provide a non-food reward that you truly do deserve!

Develop and maintain a regular eating pattern.

This is very important. Emotional eating can be a habit and these habits likely started as early as your childhood. Does it feel like second nature to reach for a snack as soon as you get home from work, whenever you turn on a movie, or even as you walk past the kitchen? Create a schedule for when/what time you are going to have your meals and snack. A snack is appropriate to include in your plan, especially if you have a long period of time between lunch and dinner for example. A planned snack is very different from a vending machine snack, so be sure to choose healthy options that align with your weight loss and/or health goals. It may also help you to set an alarm on your phone as a reminder to eat your meals and snack if you find that you’re very busy throughout the day. Setting aside scheduled meals and snack times will prevent you from skipping meals and then over-eating at your next meal.

Practice patience and mindful eating.

Think about your favorite food and what makes you like it so much. Is it the flavor? The texture? The happy childhood memory associated with it? Unfortunately, sometimes when we eat emotionally, we speed through every bite. Take the time to slow down and enjoy the sweet/savory/salty flavors, or the crunchy/soft/gummy textures, or the happy memories – chew each bite and really taste your food!

We all need to eat to survive. But sometimes our food choices are driven more by emotions rather than actual hunger, and that’s only natural. However, being able to differentiate between emotional and physical hunger and then having a plan for how to manage those triggers, will be vital for long-term weight loss success!

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