So, we defined what emotional eating is in a prior blog post. I think this can genuinely be a confusing topic sometimes because food IS attached to emotion. We all have experiences with food that give us positive (and maybe even negative) feelings. When food is so intricately tied into our holidays, birthdays, and other celebrations, it DOES take on an emotional quality. There is nothing wrong with this, and the first myth I want to dispel is that eating should be done in a robotic or controlled, rigid way. It’s not just fuel; it is so much more. And, the beauty of having a healthy relationship with food is being able to experience these positive emotions without letting them control how we act around food.
Now, how do we dive in to tackling this and addressing issues related to emotional eating?
Well, we need to build awareness. Awareness of what, you might ask yourself.
We need to find out WHAT is going on when the urge to eat hits. Do you know how to gauge your hunger and fullness cues? This is an amazing gift that we are given as babies and children. Then, along the way, this gauge can start to get a little distorted. Rather than reading what is happening within the body, we start to look to the clock, to others, and to society to tell us when we’re hungry, what we’re hungry for, when we’re full, and so on and so forth.
If you have little kids or have ever been around them, you’ll see that their eating patterns can sometimes look erratic. Yes, it IS true that if you only let a child eat popsicles and mac ‘n cheese, they will start to develop some not-so-healthy habits. AND, it’s also true that if you let them eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full, their eating may differ from one day to the next. Heck, one hour to the next! They can listen to their bodies in a very intuitive way because they are still so present in their bodies. This is a natural-born gift that we all come into the world with. We’ve seen with breastfed babies specifically that there is a symbiotic relationship that happens between child and mom; the child eats to fullness, and then mom’s body adjusts to make the appropriate amount of milk that baby says he needs. We have this very special gift that often falls away as we age, due to all of the other pressures and emotions that start to infiltrate our relationship with food and the act of eating.
To get back to this, it’s important to begin to identify what physical vs. emotional hunger feels like. Physical hunger has physical cues. When you notice that your tummy is growling, you’re feeling faint or weak, or maybe you start to get a headache - these are all physical signs that your body is in need of food. Emotional signs of hunger may come in the form of cravings, thoughts about food, and emotions around food. When we are physically hungry, there isn’t much pickiness that occurs. If you need fuel, you will take that fuel in the form that you can get at whatever moment in time it is. This is why it’s also important that we don’t allow ourselves, in trying to become an intuitive and mindful eater, to really get too hungry where we end up making ineffective choices around food. A good range to stay between on a 1-10 hunger to fullness scale would be staying between a 3-7. A three on the scale might look like a little bit of stomach talk, some thoughts about food and eating, and a physical sensation of hunger. It shouldn’t feel like a starving, gnawing hunger, which might look more like a 1 or 2 on that scale. A seven would be equivalent to being satiated, satisfied, full but not uncomfortable. When we begin to feel bloated, uncomfortable, sleepy, and perhaps in pain, we might find that we are between an 8-10 on that hunger-fullness scale.
Every person is different, so beginning to identify what hunger and fullness feels like in your OWN body is a great start to ending emotional eating. This first step won’t guarantee that you’ll stop engaging in emotional eating behaviors right away…that takes time and practice. However, beginning to differentiate between what physical and emotional hunger feels like is definitely the first step. One question to ask yourself, if you suspect that you are feeling emotionally hungry, is:
What else am I craving in my life right now?
Are you looking for connection from others? Intimacy? Closeness? Space or self-care? Are you currently in need of some quiet, alone time? Some time to slow down and relax? Time to be active?
When we can start to identify our needs - our needs in relationships, interactions with others, and emotional, spiritual, and psychological needs - we can start to find that maybe we’ve been using food as a way to meet those unrelated and very real needs. We can fall victim to emotional eating when we start to confuse these needs with our physical need to eat, and because food is never a substitute for relationships, connection, belonging, self-care, and beyond - we may find ourselves trapped in that vicious cycle of endlessly using food as a way to fill that hole. Once we start to become aware of this, we can start to meet those other emotional needs in the way that will truly satisfy them.
Stay tuned as we continue to identify ways of tackling our emotional eating through this month of November!