Emotional eating happens when you eat not because you are physically hungry, but in response to any kind of feeling. This can be feeling of depression, anxiety, loneliness, sadness, anger, frustration, or even pleasant feelings! Eating comforts you. It can make you feel good and you don’t want that feeling to stop. It helps you forget about the feelings. According to Dr. Jennifer Taitz, PsyD, the relief that eating brings may not seem bad to us, but it interferes with listening to our emotions – emotions provide us with meaningful information, which we lose if we avoid them. As Dr. Judith Beck, PhD writes in The Beck Diet Solution, soothing yourself with food is a distracter. The problem is, though, it is a temporary one. Eating emotionally creates a new problem – now you feel guilt about eating what you just ate! Dr. Beck also explains that there is nothing wrong with negative emotions, they aren’t dangerous, you won’t fall apart, they’re not an emergency, they are just nature’s way of telling us there’s a problem. With time, they will even subside on their own. There are many skills that you can learn to feel better. One thing you can do to reduce negative emotions, is to learn ways to respond to negative thoughts and solve problems that led to your emotional distress. Cognitive therapy can help you learn this. Your thoughts are very powerful and affect how you feel and behave, so learning to control negative thinking is very beneficial.
Something else that you can do is to learn other ways to soothe yourself than with food. Many people emotionally eat very rarely, but other people find this to be an ongoing struggle. It can affect your mood, interfere with your self-esteem, and cause weight gain. You can learn various types of meditation and breathing exercises, which can be a wonderful and helpful alternative to emotional eating. In addition, learning how to be mindful about your eating is also very effective. There are many ways that you can calm and relax your body without eating, such as yoga, working out, baths, and self hypnosis. Also, you can challenge yourself to find distractions which are healthy. Just a couple of examples include music, gardening, polishing your nails (it’s hard to eat with wet polish!), writing, and having a “buddy” – some who you can turn to and who will look to you for support as well. There are many more techniques that you can learn in order to self soothe without food.
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Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger:
- Emotional hunger is sudden and feels urgent. Physical hunger can usually wait, whereas emotional hunger demands to be satisfied now! You don’t think through options.
- Emotional hunger results in mindless eating. You don’t always even taste the food. You don’t realize that you ate the whole bag of chips or carton of ice cream until it is gone!
- Craving specific foods, especially unhealthy ones, is another sign of emotional eating. Try the “Apple Test”. If you aren’t hungry enough to eat an apple, then you aren’t really hungry!
- Emotional eating usually is accompanied by an unpleasant or upsetting emotion.
- You don’t stop eating when you’re full. Physical hunger satisfies you without needing to be “stuffed.” With physical hunger, you notice yourself getting full as you are eating. With emotional eating, more and more food is demanded in order to feel full.
- Physical hunger is associated with physiological hunger cues, whereas emotional hunger is not.
- When emotionally eating, there is often a sense of guilt afterward. This is not the case with physical hunger. With emotional eating, the guilt can even start before eating.
- Some emotional eaters even experience all emotions as hunger. This is why it is important to find out what you are feeling and why.
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