Are you really hungry or just feeling happy, sad or tired? We take a look at emotional eating
You have a brand-new mortgage and your work hours are cut, your partner has cancelled a weekend away and the dishwasher has just flooded the kitchen. Before you reach for a handful of cookies or the brie that’s calling you from the fridge, get curious about the motivation behind your emotional eating.
Am I really hungry?
Why do we eat if it’s not for sustenance to fuel our bodies? To fill a need? For something to do? Because we’re happy, sad, tired or afraid? Turns out it can be all of the above.
Dr Michelle May, author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, says that by asking the simple question “Am I hungry?” you open the door to a deeper awareness and understanding of yourself. “Once inside, there’s much to explore. You see it’s not just about what you eat; it’s also about why and how you eat. In fact, for many of us, it’s not about food at all,” she writes.
“Modern living in the Western world is built around getting food, eating food and ensuring we have enough food — psychologically we are preparing for a famine that never comes.”
People eat when they aren’t hungry for myriad reasons. At a friend’s party, canapés are handed around and it seems rude not to try one. Enjoying a crunchy toffee apple at a school fete takes some people back to their childhood. A mum unconsciously nibbles leftover food on her child’s plate. Lovers savour the intimacy of a shared ice-cream in a park as they enjoy the sweet sunshine.
Then there’s eating as a coping mechanism, a way to deal with emotions. Natasha Murray, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says emotional eating is a complex issue.
“It happens when we eat in an effort to satisfy feelings, not hunger,” she says. “People use food as a coping strategy for negative emotions such as stress, anxiety or boredom.”
Emotional eating dulls the senses. For many people eating when they aren’t hungry is a mindless activity that can very quickly become a habit to fill an unknown need. Murray says it’s a challenging issue to deal with, especially when it comes to marketing. “They often advertise chocolate at 3.30pm, when people are feeling their lowest and need a quick pick-me-up,” she says.
Too much of a good thing?
Too many of the wrong kinds of treats consumed to satisfy hedonic hunger can lead to unwanted kilograms. National Health Survey figures showed that in 2015, 71 per cent of men and 56 per cent of women in Australia were overweight or obese.
Western Australia-based Dr Ali Dale, who specialises in weight management programs, says pervasive belief systems are compounding the problem. “We live in an obesogenic environment,” she says. “Modern living in the Western world is built around getting food, eating food and ensuring we have enough food — psychologically we are preparing for a famine that never comes.”
“One of the principles of intuitive eating is that without set food rules, we naturally gravitate towards a large variety of health-providing foods,” says Adams. “We don’t need diets to tell us what to eat. If we have a little faith, our bodies take care of that for us.”
There is a definite link between being overweight and comfort eating, adds Dale. “We know through research from Cambridge Weight Plan that 90 per cent of women and 80 per cent of men who struggle with their weight [also] comfort eat.”
In Germany, they have coined a word for emotional eating, kummerspeck, which translates to “grief bacon” or “grief fat”. While bacon might not be your soothing food of choice, chances are it’s probably not carrot sticks, hummus or anything that’s bursting with nutrients.
It turns out there’s a reason why we crave unhealthy foods when we emotionally eat. Dale says there’s a certain biology to comfort eating. “Carbohydrates interact with stress hormones, [so] physically we will feel better if we eat some form of carbohydrates when we’re feeling distressed,” she says.
We know food is much more than fuel for our bodies. It’s an intricate part of the rich tapestry of everyday life. It’s a way to celebrate, a way to socialise and, according to some, it’s a perfectly normal way to self-soothe.
Clinical psychologist and founder of Treat Yourself Well, Louise Adams, says food is a valid and legitimate way to find comfort. “I know that might seem a bit radical, but I believe it’s only an issue if it’s interfering with your quality of life; if it’s having a negative impact on your emotional or physical health,” she says.
If you’ve munched your way through a packet of chips after a rough day, make sure you forgive yourself. Acknowledge your actions were driven by feelings, get curious about how to manage those emotions in the future and, most importantly, be kind and compassionate towards yourself as no one is perfect.
The smooth texture of ice-cream, the palatable crunch of hot fries, the zesty bite of chilli on your tongue — no matter what your emotional indulgence, few would argue that a tough day doesn’t become cheerier with your favourite indulgence.
Adams is also quick to point out that, just because you have a chocolate biscuit or two, it doesn’t mean you need to eat the whole packet. And if you learn more about yourself, you might not feel the need to. She says the key to managing overindulging is to tune in to your body. “Your body is always talking to you, but we often don’t listen until it starts shouting.”
Never say no to foods you love
Deprivation is a powerful stimulant. When something is taboo it’s human nature to want it even more. So, if it’s caramel slice you’re daydreaming about, have a serve and enjoy its sweetness and texture. Give yourself permission to have it and the desire wanes.
According to research from Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, just a little bit of food considered a treat can be enough to fulfil the craving. In a study, participants were split into two groups. The group offered less chocolate, apple pie and potato chips still felt the same reduction in hunger and cravings than the group who were offered considerably more. In other words, just a small amount was enough to satisfy.
Did you know you make 221 food-related decisions every single day? In another study from Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, researchers found people guessed they made around 15 food decisions a day. The real number is more than 12 times that.
Dale says many of these food-related decisions are unconscious. “To help manage eating habits, create an environment where you make healthy decisions easily,” she says. “That way unhealthy decisions have to be made more consciously — there’s more effort.”
“We are in food prison trying to be good and eat good food all the time, but secretly we are looking out the window at the bad food and craving it ... Breaking free from that means saying there’s no good or bad food; it’s making all food morally neutral.”
For example, instead of keeping ice-cream in the freezer, if you’re craving it, head to the shops and get it so the process is more intentional and less impulsive. Always have nourishing snacks within easy reach, like raw nuts, bliss balls and fruit. When you eat at a buffet, stand more than two metres away. “At that distance, it’s no longer an unconscious decision for you to reach for the food and eat more than you intended,” Dale adds.
Tune in to your body’s hunger signals
Do you know what being hungry really means? True hunger feelings are stomach rumbles, feeling emptiness or hollowness in your stomach and fatigue. Other more pronounced signals can include irritability, shakiness, headache and an inability to focus.
Murray says it’s important to learn what true hunger really is and how it feels. “A hunger scale works as a guide to gauge true hunger — it ranges from one to 10,” she says. “One is ‘I’m not really hungry at all’ and 10 is ‘I’m absolutely ravenous. I could eat a horse and chase the rider!’”
How to manage emotional eating
Do something else to nurture yourself
Take a walk in the sunshine, sit under a tree and revel in the beauty of nature. Crank up the volume on your stereo and sing along to your favourite music. Call a buddy and have a rant. Choose whatever feels right for you to fill the emotional void you habitually seek to satisfy with food.
And, if you’ve munched your way through a packet of chips after a rough day, make sure you forgive yourself. Acknowledge your actions were driven by feelings, get curious about how to manage those emotions in the future and, most importantly, be kind and compassionate towards yourself, as no one is perfect.
Kids do it naturally. When most kids are hungry, they eat. When they aren’t, they don’t. “They tune in to their senses to find out if they’ve had enough of something,” Adams says. We need to get back in touch with our bodies. We’ve all been taught to ignore our bodies and listen to the rules.
“One of the principles of intuitive eating is that, without set food rules, we naturally gravitate towards a large variety of health-providing foods,” says Adams. “We don’t need diets to tell us what to eat. If we have a little faith, our bodies take care of that for us.”
Good food or bad?
Food is often put into two distinct categories: healthy or unhealthy. According to Adams, it’s a concept we need to turn on its head. “We are in food prison trying to be good and eat good food all the time, but secretly we are looking out the window at the bad food and craving it,” she says. “Breaking free from that means saying there’s no good or bad food; it’s making all food morally neutral.”
Take a mindful moment
Have you ever found yourself eating your way through a slice of last night’s pizza but don’t remember even opening the fridge? A 2015 review on mindfulness and eating behaviours by psychologists at Birmingham University determined that mindfulness-based interventions reduce weight, emotional eating and automatic eating.
Murray says, before you reach for food as a means to de-stress, pause for a beat. Slow down your breathing and savour every morsel. “If you are eating a piece of chocolate, for example, tune in to your senses when you do so you can fully enjoy it,” she says. “How does it feel in your mouth? How does it change texture as it melts?”
By slowing down and tuning in when eating, you can then ask yourself, “Do I really want to eat everything I have in front of me, or am I satisfied?”
Balance it out
A nutritious diet based on a range of foods from the five food groups — fruit, grains, lean meats and poultry, milk and yogurt, vegetables and legumes — can also help to minimise comfort or emotional eating. “We know we are healthier when we eat a broad selection of healthy foods,” Murray says. “The healthier your diet, the more you’re able to cope with stressful situations and the less likely you may resort to emotional eating to fill a need.”
Quick tips to manage emotional eating
- Keep a food and mood diary for a month. Jot down everything you ate, what time you ate it and how you were feeling when you were eating.
- Determine when your high-risk times are and have several strategies in place, such as nourishing snacks for physical hunger or mood-enhancing activities for emotional hunger.
- Enjoy the pleasure of food and eating. Savour every bite of what you eat.
- Feed your mind and your body. Learn to love who you are, embrace your unique spirit and let go of any striving for perfection.
- Forgive yourself and others through kindness and compassion. Learn to accept things as they are, let go of whatever is holding you back and embrace your true self.
If you feel that emotional eating is negatively impacting on your life, seek help from a trusted health professional.
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