Am I Hungry Right Now or Eating My Feelings

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I never considered myself an emotional eater. When I’d think of the term,  I’d conjure up images from a Hallmark Channel romantic comedy – a woman, teary-eyed and couch-locked, crying into a carton of Ben and Jerry’s.

I never acted like that; I don’t even really like sweets. So, I just assumed I was immune to emotional eating. Even when I was very overweight, I attributed most of the extra pounds to my drinking. But drinking wasn’t the only culprit. As I think back, I have been an emotional eater and it wasn’t until I became a distance runner that I realized it.

Emotional eating is like many compulsive behaviors – it’s about escapism and the release of dopamine (which your brain interprets as pleasure). But, since we need food to survive, it isn’t addressed socially in quite the same way as smoking or chugging a Big Gulp of coffee.

Even if you’re not one to binge on eclairs, you could very well be an emotional eater. I’ve been known to go to Whole Foods, grab a bag of dried mangoes, and eat the entire bag in one sitting. I wouldn’t consider those unhealthy (although the natural sugar content is through the roof), but do I need an entire bag? Absolutely not.

Emotional eating can lead to very serious health problems, so it’s important to notice when it’s happening and work to break the cycle. Whether you eat mangoes or Rocky Road, the behavior is rooted in the same place. And bringing awareness to it is the first step to breaking free of your emotional eating habit.

First, why sweets?

Most people reach for sweets because of the very obvious chemical response that sweets trigger. This begins with a small surge of endorphins, or feel-good chemicals.  

Foods like chocolate cause our brains to produce endorphins and alleviate some of the discomfort from stress or worry. When people are feeling particularly anxious or out of control, they might seek chemical means as a way out.

Yes, that can mean eating donuts or an entire pumpkin pie.

Once the association of that chemical bond is made, the addictive behavior begins

Human beings are usually either chasing an emotion they want more of or running from something they want less of. That’s really where the behavior of emotional eating begins.

Different foods produce chemical reactions, but if those reactions were that addicting, we’d all be walking around, chewing endlessly on chocolate. I like chocolate (I’m only human), but I don’t need it. The difference between my relationship and that of an emotional eater is I’m not using Nestle chips or candy bars to combat negative feelings or escape stress.

Eating mindfully is very different from eating emotionally

When it comes down to it, emotional eating is rarely about physical cravings. Now, let me clarify what I’m saying: Of course, people get hungry, and your body does desire different foods at different times. Yet eating mindfully is very different than eating emotionally.

When I became a distance runner, I learned what it was like to feel “hungry” for the first time; I don’t think I ever had a healthy relationship with food before that. I didn’t know when to eat, or what, or how much. I followed a standard American diet and my method of eating was to starve myself all day then -at night- eat one big, carb-loaded, fatty meal.

That doesn’t work when you’re training for a 26.2 mile road race; my body needed sustainable fuel. I learned about glycogen, and how it’s stored, and about the toxicity of sugar. I learned about getting energy from healthy fats and foods rich in Omega 3 fatty acids.

I started eating a lot of fiber and smelly vegetables. My energy levels spiked, and all of a sudden, I developed a healthy relationship with food; I began to understand it. I started to pinpoint the differences in my body when I ate certain meals. I could feel that my previous “standard American diet” drained my energy and left me feeling lethargic. I don’t know how I never noticed it before.

When I was eating that burger and fries every night, I was eating emotionally. I was chasing a memory from my childhood, most likely, where that food always made me feel content and comfortable. I wasn’t over-eating, but I was emotionally eating.

It’s important for our well-being to make the shift from emotional eating, to eating mindfully

I was watching a YouTube video with Deepak Chopra just this week in the vein of this subject: A young woman expressed to him that she was an emotional eater and sought advice on how to stop.

You can watch the video here, but Chopra basically says that we need to break the cycle, and to do that, mindfulness is key. “Ask yourself,” he said, “am I hungry right now?” He also suggests that when you’re eating, don’t do anything else (i.e. don’t watch television). Pay attention to the food that you’re putting into your body and how it makes you feel. And make sure you’re getting enough sleep.

I know this story all too well; I don’t always get my full seven hours of rest. It’s usually the morning after that that I crave a New York bagel the most, which is unfortunate: A New York Bagel packs in as much as 800 calories (an equivalent to multiple slices of bread). That’s enough to send my blood sugar sky-high, but I crave it when my body is tired and releasing cortisol (a stress hormone).

Breaking the habit of emotional eating is important for our overall good health

You don’t need to look a certain way; everyone’s body is beautiful. I do believe, though, that even if you’re rail thin, you can be an emotional eater, and you can be on your way to serious health conditions caused by such behavior.

Diabetes and high blood pressure are two of the many complications of a poor diet, which may be avoided by slowing down, taking a deep breath, and bringing your awareness back into your body when you feel stressed or overwhelmed.

Some good rules of thumb, according to this, are to notice whether the cravings come on slowly or suddenly. Real hunger builds like a crescendo, whereas emotional cravings hit like a ton of bricks. Pay attention to the foods you crave. If you’re wanting a variety, it’s likely real, physical hunger; if “all I need right now is French fries” is your jam, it’s probably an emotional reaction.  Aim to eat slowly and notice when you start to feel full.

Emotional eating is something that affects many of us. But like most things, we have the power to break away and make lasting change.

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