Homemade macaroni and cheese, rocky road ice cream, chicken and waffles…there's a reason these tasty dishes are called "comfort foods."  A few bites can make the blues, stress, anger or anxiety vanish.  Unfortunately, safe and comforting feelings gained through certain foods are short-lived and depending on them can be detrimental.  Using foods to fill emotional needs can result in an inability to properly deal with emotions and can interfere with weight loss.  Learning more about emotional eating and the triggers that bring it on can help.

Are you an emotional eater?

Emotional eaters have certain behaviors in common when it comes to food.  Such as they often…

  • Use food as a reward
  • Eat even when not hungry
  • Eat when anxious, stressed, sad, angry or bored
  • Feel a sense of safety or comfort while eating
  • Feel guilty after eating
  • Frequently stuff themselves past the point of being full

How do emotional hunger and physical hunger differ?

It is easy to confuse emotional hunger for physical hunger, but there are ways to tell the difference.  Emotional hunger is sudden and demands instant gratification, while physical hunger comes on slowly.  Physical hunger produces symptoms in the belly like pangs or grumbling and almost any food will satisfy it.

Emotional hunger results in cravings for fatty and sugary foods that become more intense as the mind focuses on the food's appearance, taste and smell. It can lead to mindless eating, which explains why some people eat a full jar of peanut butter or a whole bag of potato chips before they know it.  Mindless eaters often stuff themselves to the point of discomfort rather than stopping when the stomach is full.

Related:  Lose Stress to Gain Joy

What are some healthy alternatives to emotional eating?

Gain more control over food habits and body weight by practicing mindful eating.  This involves pausing when a craving hits to determine if hunger is physical or emotional, keeping triggers like stress, anxiety, or sadness in mind.  To practice mindful eating, make choices at the grocery store that are tasty and nutritious and prepare foods in healthy ways at home.  Eating at the dinner table without the external stimuli of television or a computer encourages mindful eating and promotes weight loss.

Coping with emotions in healthy ways also helps.  Make a phone call to a special friend, watch a comedy, or take the dog for a walk when feeling depressed or lonely.  Reduce anxiety or stress with yoga, a warm bath, or soft music.  Treat boredom with a bike ride, a trip to the book store or a new household project.

Eating to fill emotional needs becomes a viscous cycle that can hamper weight loss and instill feelings of guilt and powerlessness.  Fortunately, it isn't difficult to take control over eating habits.  Start with determining whether hunger is physical or emotional and treat it accordingly.  Use nutritious foods to feed physical hunger and satisfy emotional hunger with healthy and comforting alternatives to fast foods and sweets.