Does a bad day at the office or a fight with your spouse have you craving chocolate ice cream or pizza? If you eat when you feel stressed, angry or depressed, even though you aren’t physically hungry, you’re an emotional eater.
Rushing to satisfy an unhealthy craving whenever your emotions get the better of you can sabotage your efforts to maintain a healthy, clean diet. Fortunately, once you’re aware of your tendency toward emotional eating, you can learn to control this behavior.
Signs That You’re an Emotional Eater
1. You eat when you’re stressed
What’s the first thing you do when faced with a stressful situation? Your boss wants a report on her desk in an hour, and you don’t know how to begin. You promised your elderly neighbor you would pick up her shopping, but your son is feeling sick and you need to take him to the doctor.
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If your immediate reaction is to get a bite to eat and then try to resolve your dilemma, you’re guilty of emotional eating.
2. You eat to comfort yourself
We all have days when we feel bad about ourselves. Maybe you couldn’t complete a task successfully. Perhaps you heard someone make a negative comment about you.
If you try to make yourself feel better by eating something, whether it’s a meatloaf or a pile of chocolate chip cookies, you’re an emotional eater.
3. You eat when you’re not physical hungry
Your body needs food for energy, so it’s normal to be hungry if you haven’t eaten for a while or if you’ve been engaging in strenuous physical activity. However, if you eat large amounts of food even when you haven’t gone very long without eating or haven’t been very active, emotional eating could be your problem.
How to Tell if You’re Really Hungry
You might be so used to eating for emotional reasons that you’ve forgotten how to recognize true physical hunger. Here‘s how to differentiate physical hunger from emotional hunger.
1. Physical hunger is uncomfortable
You might hear your stomach growling and then feel stabbing pains. You could start to feel lightheaded. If your blood sugar drops too low, you could break out in a sweat, become irritable or anxious, or have trouble concentrating.
Emotional hunger, on the other hand, presents itself as a craving. You desire the taste, smell or texture of a certain food, but you aren’t feeling any physical discomfort.
2. You’re not picky when you’re physically hungry
When you’re physically hungry, all you want to do is eat. Your goal is provide your body with nutrients. You’ll eat almost anything that’s available.
However, when you’re emotionally hungry, you crave specific foods. You crave their taste, smell and texture. You’ll ignore foods that aren’t on your comfort list.
3. Physical hunger comes on gradually
Quiz: Is Your Body TOXIC? Take the Test...
Have you ever been so involved in a task that you couldn’t be bothered to eat? You may have heard a tiny rumble in your stomach, but ignored it and continued with what you were doing. Gradually, the rumbling became louder, but you were still too engrossed in your activity to stop. Finally, you realized that your stomach was beginning to hurt and you couldn’t concentrate. That’s when you decided to get something to eat.
With emotional eating, you start out not being hungry at all. Then suddenly, something upsets you and you feel you must eat something immediately.
4. You don’t overeat when you’re physically hungry
When you’re physically hungry, you stop eating once you start to feel full. When you’re emotionally hungry, you keep eating past the point of fullness.
How to Stop Emotional Eating
Once you’re aware that your emotions affect your eating habits, you can take steps to ensure that you only give your body food when it needs it. Here are some tips.
1. Identify your triggers
Are there certain situations—or certain people—that make you feel nervous, angry or depressed? Ideally you’ll avoid them altogether, but often that’s not possible.
However, just being aware of your triggers can help. If you know a phone call with the billing department at your electric company might leave you craving potato chips, you’ll be less likely to eat them after you hang up. Keeping a food diary can help.
2. Take a break before you eat
Before you head to the fridge, give yourself a minute to ask yourself if you’re physically hungry. Are you experiencing the symptoms of physical hunger?
Try to distract yourself. With physical hunger, your hunger pangs will worsen as time passes, no matter what you’re doing. If you’re emotionally hungry, your hunger might decrease or even disappear.
3. Keep unhealthy foods out of the house
If eating the treat you crave means taking a trip to the store first, you’ll probably decide you’re not that hungry after all. Make sure you stock up on clean snacks so you have something to eat when true physical hunger strikes.
4. Avoid extreme dieting
Very low-calorie diets don’t just deprive your body of nutrients; they can make you forget how to recognize physical hunger. This can lead to a dangerous pattern of strict deprivation followed by emotional binges on unhealthy foods.
5. Find healthier ways to cope with stress
Exercise is a great stress reliever. Other methods for dealing with stress include meditation, enjoying nature, spending time with a pet, getting together with friends, listening to music and having sex.
6. Accept that you can’t always be happy
In life, bad things happen to everyone, and a chocolate bar or a piece of cake isn’t supposed to make emotional pain go away instantly. Sometimes, you have to give yourself time to heal. If you’re overwhelmed with anger, anxiety, depression or grief, seek counseling.