Symptoms of hunger aren't always the reason some of us decide to eat. Some people have a difficult relationship with food, where it operates as much as a stress relief as its true purpose. People can eat when they feel down, as a reward or if they need comfort, but they cannot truly solve these problems with a meal.
If you feel a craving for certain foods when you're unhappy, tired or stressed, learning to recognise that craving can help you end the cycle of emotional eating. This can help you greatly improve the food that your diet contains, and this improvement can do wonders for your overall health.
None of us will go through our lives without feeling upset, angry, bored, exhausted, overly stressed or lonely at some point, and emotional eaters will turn to food as their primary method of coping with those feelings. The increased calorie consumption can make people even worse - both physically and emotionally - and the underlying reason for over-eating in the first place will remain unresolved.
Recognising emotional eating
There are a few differences between physical and emotional hunger, although they can be difficult to recognise at certain times, and especially if you do use food to help you cope.
Physical hunger takes time to develop and you'll experience it in the stomach, while emotional hunger may be instant and through the mind. Emotional hunger also focuses on certain types of food, usually those that contain lots of sugar or fat. If you were physically hungry, any type of food would suffice, such as fruit and vegetables, or fibre-laden breakfast cereals.
Eating on autopilot is also a sign of emotional eating. If you find huge bag of crisps has disappeared down your neck before you've even realised or truly savoured and enjoyed them, you may be eating for emotional reasons.
Emotional eating can also give you feelings of guilt when you've finished.
Avoiding emotional eating
The best way of avoiding eating for emotional reasons is to understand what triggers those feelings in the first place. Common causes include:
- Stress: if you're often stressed, your body will release a hormone called cortisol into your bloodstream. With this can come a desire for foods which provide a burst of energy, often those that are sugary, salty or full of fat
- Boredom: having plenty of time on our hands, especially on our own, can lead to people feeling unfulfilled. Turning to food can help cover up those feelings
- Childhood habits and memories: if your parents bought you certain foods when you were feeling down and rewarded you with others, that is a habit you may take into adult life
- Social gatherings: we've all been out for a meal with friends to be told "we're all having a dessert, you should have one too!" Sometimes that can be too difficult to resist.
A food diary might help monitor your feelings, which is a good way of spotting what your triggers are, and helping you to avoid them. New coping methods that don't involve food should be sought, such as spending time with friends if you feel lonely or down, or picking up a hobby such as a musical instrument or a good book if you're feeling bored.
It's also important that when the cravings strike, you pause. Giving yourself this time may help you to understand what you are experiencing, and even to make a different decision. Think - am I actually hungry? In time and with practice, this method could help you avoid the problem altogether.