In our last post, we discussed orthorexia nervosa, in which a person feels guilty after eating something they consider “unclean” or something not on their permitted food list. There is another, more common, eating problem, that can lead to guilty feelings after eating— “emotional hunger” which triggers emotional eating.
Emotional hunger is when you feel stressed, angry, anxious, bored, lonely, or depressed, and have the urge to eat something to cover over or temporarily fix the negative emotion. Often the food you crave is something not so healthy.
Often people are not even aware of their emotional eating. Sometimes they can’t keep their weight under control and they are not sure why. They might blame lack of exercise or that their metabolism is changing, but the real issue could be too much emotional eating.
Note that some amount of emotional eating is normal, and most everyone does it occasionally. It becomes a problem if it contributes to being overweight or obese, or if you have some underlying medical issue such as diabetes.
If emotional eating is a problem for you, the first challenge is to recognize the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
Physical hunger usually comes on gradually, and if necessary you can postpone the need to eat if you are occupied with something else. Emotional hunger often comes as a sudden urge, and you may crave a specific food right away, something like ice cream, candy, pizza, cookies, or a cheeseburger.
Physical hunger you can often feel in your stomach; empty or growling for food, whereas emotional hunger is more centered in the mind and mouth. Physical hunger is satisfied by a reasonable quantity of food, but in emotional hunger you often eat too much and feeling guilty afterwards. If you are eating to satisfy a physical need, you don’t feel guilty afterwards.
1) When you feel the need to grab some emotional food, think what trigger is stressing you out. Deal with the cause of stress if you can. If there are lots of issues, it may help to make a list of everything that is stressing you, and what you can do to help the situation, other than soothing your emotions with food.
2) Consider healthier alternatives to dealing with stress, like taking a walk, yoga, or meditation. If it’s too much, get professional help.
3) Don’t beat yourself up. Be compassionate with yourself. If you feel too guilty, you could fall into a vicious cycle and just end up eating more. Better to focus on how to prevent it next time; what alternative actions to take.
4) When you feel the need to grab emotional food, instead go for a short walk, read part of a book you enjoy, listen to some of your favorite music, or try to relax by taking slow deep breaths. Do something you enjoy until the urge to eat passes. If you can, do something active—move.
5) Put unhealthy snack food out of the way, and if you must have some emotional food, try a healthy snack like fruit.
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