I know that I have emotional eating tendencies – there’s zero doubt in my mind. Some of you are nodding vehemently with me and wondering “how could you not know?!” But you may be surprised by how many of my clients are not sure whether they’re emotional eaters (hint: almost everyone eats emotionally from time to time!), or even if a specific eating behavior resulted from emotional eating or actual hunger. So today, I’m going to help you with a 3-step process and a series of questions that will help you determine the root of your desire to eat.
True awareness of emotional eating comes with practice. And practice takes time. There’s simply nothing that is a one-size-fits-all, 5-minute-or-less cure for emotional eating that works for every single person. But the steps I’m about to share will help you guide yourself in the moment of question, and this practice, when repeated, will help you feel more in control of your desires and tendencies!
Three Steps to Distinguish Between Hunger and Emotional Eating
The three steps to distinguish between hunger and emotional eating are simple: physical assessment, emotional assessment, and making the right choice for you. Each step comes with a series of questions you can ask yourself to uncover what’s behind your urge to eat. Feel free to follow my questions directly, swap in some of your own, or not even follow specific questions and just let your mind guide you.
Step One: Physical Assessment
True hunger is there for a purpose … our bodies need fuel! So, if you’re feeling truly hungry, I always want you to eat! Now, hunger doesn’t mean you’re just not full. We don’t need to walk around feeling full all day. It’s normal and wonderful to feel hungry leading up to a meal, and we don’t have to eat at the very first moment we feel a bit of hunger. But if you’re truly hungry, eat!
Here are a few questions to help you determine if you’re physically hungry:
- What have I eaten so far today?
- Do I think this is enough to fuel my body given my activity levels?
- Are there other factors (like hormonal fluctuations) that might be increasing my true hunger?
- Might I be riding the blood sugar roller coaster? If we eat foods higher in carbohydrates, particularly refined carbohydrates, our blood sugar spikes and then often crashes later (see more here). If you’re coming down from a crash, eating something heavy in protein and / or healthy fat can help stabilize you.
- What does my desire for food feel like? Do I have a physical grumbling in my abdomen? Do I feel faint, lightheaded, or weak? Can I locate the feeling of hunger in my body? (If this last question sounds odd, just go with it! You might be surprised that trying to locate emotions – even things like “anxiety” or “anger” or “sadness” in our physical bodies can often help us dissipate them! However, if you locate the feeling of hunger and it’s a grumbling in your stomach, it may very well be actual hunger!)
Step Two: Emotional Assessment
One of the first emotional eating books I ever read was What are You Hungry For, by Deepak Chopra. Honestly, I don’t remember much of the specific content, although anything by Deepak is wonderful, but what sticks with me is the conflagration of terms we use … that the word “hunger” doesn’t just mean physical hunger, but can mean emotional hunger, too! I think the verbiage confusion has a lot to do with the confusion we feel when it comes to deciphering between physical and emotional hunger.
Here are a few questions to help you determine if you’re emotionally hungry:
- How hungry are you physically, on a 1-10 scale where 10 is the most hungry? (This is the bridge from Step One to Step Two)
- How hungry you emotionally, on a 1-10 scale where 10 is the most emotionally hungry? If this one is hard to determine, just give it a shot! There’s no right answer. Imagine yourself in the angriest, most frustrated, most desolate, most overwhelmed, most broken, most unhappy state … that’s a 10. Where are you now?
- If your emotional hunger rated higher than your physical hunger, that’s great insight! What is a word or a sentence that could describe the emotion you are feeling?
- What has gone on today that might be influencing your urge to eat? Did your boss send you a nasty email, or did your child kick and scream all the way to school? Is your to-do list overwhelming you or did you sleep through a workout you really wanted to make? Think through what’s going on emotionally to see if there’s any connection between that and your desire to eat.
- Is there something you’re avoiding, or are you distracted? Avoidance and distraction are some of the most common states for emotional eaters. Either we’re avoiding something – finishing a project, tackling a to-do list, having that tough conversation with our spouse, or actually feeling what we need to feel … or we’re distracted – scrolling through social media, flitting back and forth between tasks, or watching TV. Neither of these states is conducive to the awareness needed to stop emotional eating, so see what you can do to snap out of it and set yourself up for better success.
Step Three: Make the Best Choice for You
Notice that I didn’t say “always eat the kale.” Because sometimes, honestly, the best choice is going to be eating that chocolate, even if it is emotional. These times are few and far between, but you’re a human, not a robot, so start this step by planning to give yourself some grace. There’s a difference between giving yourself grace 8 times per day as you shovel M&Ms in your mouth to avoid your inbox and giving yourself grace because you just had a really, really, truly hard day and even though you’re fully aware that you’re emotionally eating a delicious dark chocolate bar, you choose to do it anyway.
So, this step is about making the right choice for you. Making a choice that will make you feel physically and emotionally your best even after the food has passed through your lips. Making a choice that is intentional and deliberate, and in your best interest. When you do that 99% of the time, you’ll find physical and emotional health that seems impossible when you’re fighting yourself daily through mini emotional eating battles.
Here are a few questions to help you make the best choice for you:
- What food do I want right now? If you came up with an answer that has a judgmental descriptor, like “junk food” or “bad food” (which my clients know I don’t allow!), that’s a sure sign that your craving is emotional. If you came up with a food category, like “something salty,” ask yourself if veggies sprinkled with sea salt would do it. If so, there’s a chance that your body is truly craving salt, in which case you have the power to make the healthiest decision available to you. If you came up with one specific food, like “only ice cream will do!” then chances are, you’ve associated some emotional release with that ice cream and are looking for the emotional benefits.
- Does chicken and broccoli sound good right now? I like chicken and broccoli. I don’t love chicken and broccoli, but it’s fine. When I’m truly physically hungry, I will eat this, be satisfied by it, and move on. But if I’m only craving tortilla chips, and the thought of chicken and broccoli is appalling, I’ve learned something about my cravings.
- How would I feel, emotionally and physically, an hour later, if I eat this? I always tell my clients that if something is truly a treat, it will make you feel physically and emotionally great. When I sit and savor my square (or two!) of dark chocolate every day, I feel emotionally great because I truly enjoy it and don’t have regret, and physically, I feel the same as before – I choose lower sugar, good quality dark chocolate that doesn’t lead me to a blood sugar crash or energy slump. But when I’m shoveling those M&Ms into my mouth late at night trying to stay awake to do just one more hour of work, I feel emotionally awful afterwards – I tried to drown my sorrows with chocolate and it didn’t work. And I feel physically poor – maybe sick to my stomach or dealing with impaired sleep or even more cravings the next day. Thinking about how I will feel later is a great indicator of what’s really going on.
- What is the kindest thing I can do for myself right now? Again, I want a treat to truly be a treat. So if it is that slice of cake after going through all of these questions, enjoy it guilt-free and move on. But if you know it would truly be more kind to yourself to go for a walk, or get to bed early, or journal, or call a friend, or whatever else … then give yourself the gift of doing that.
Now it’s your turn … What questions would you add to my list? Do you identify as an emotional eater?