Are You an Emotional Eater?

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Are You an Emotional Eater?

If only food were just food—fuel and nourishment. Ahh, wouldn’t our jeans just love that?

But the trouble is that food is too often used as much more than simple healthful nutrition. Somehow ice cream, pizza, cookies, potato chips and casseroles become comfort, something we nosh on to bring back a lost, but highly desirable feeling or to overcome negative emotions such as depression, boredom, feeling empty or stress.

It’s Time to Eat: Do You Know Where Your Hunger Is?

So, do you know where your hunger is? Here’s a handy GPS system to help you locate your hunger.

  • Emotional hunger is above your neck, while physical hunger is below your neck. Easy enough, right? Wait, there’s more.
  • Emotional hunger is something that comes on suddenly when you may not even be thinking of food. One minute you are focused on writing an article and the next minute, whoosh, you're starving.
  • Cravings for one type of food, and only that specific food, suggests hunger that’s above the neck, especially when that “hunger” is urgent and tugging at you to eat NOW!
  • When that’s paired with an upsetting emotion connected to a distressing situation, you can bet your GPS is pointing north (that’d be above your neck toward your mind).
  • Are you eating absent-mindedly—automatically—as if someone else is shoving that candy into your mouth? Is that cupcake is leaping off the shelf into your stomach? That’s above-the-neck hunger.
  • Does your stomach feel full, but you’re still munching away? Yep, that’d be emotional eating you have going there.
  • Finally, now that you recognize you’ve overeaten—which you began so you’d feel less depressed, stressed, anxious and lonely—you now feel guilty! Arghhhh, above-the-neck emotional eating is such a paradox!

Ready to replace this style of dysfunctional, emotional eating with real in-the-stomach-based physical-hunger eating? Ready to recognize that hunger that comes on gradually, leaves you open to different types of food to fuel your body, is accompanied by rumbling and gnawing in your stomach and is willing to wait until you can eat? Good! That’s physical hunger. Real physical hunger stops when you are full and only comes on when it’s been hours since your last meal.

Get a Handle on Emotional Eating

Here’s how to beat back that all-in-your-head, irrational eating pattern:

1. Identify the emotional triggers that set your eating in motion. Emotion journals that include what you think and feel, even if you keep it for only a week, are remarkably helpful in zeroing in on the illogical drive to eat. Write down what you are thinking and feeling before, during and after you eat. Ask yourself, “Am I physically hungry? What am I thinking/feeling? What do I need? How can I meet this need?”

2. Create and use your own “hunger scale” from 0, starving to the point of feeling sick, to 3, hungry with a grumbling stomach, to 7, feeling full and slightly uncomfortable to 10, feeling sick and extremely uncomfortable.

3. It’s not what’s eating you, but rather it’s what emotion(s) are driving you to eat. Develop other ways to deal with emotional eating. This might include going for a walk, talking things over with a trusted friend, exercising, taking a nap or some other productive activity. Tell yourself, “It’s just a craving and it’ll pass,” “I can stand feeling discomfort,” or “Just because I think it’s what I need, doesn’t mean it really is.”

4. Before eating, use these four steps:

-Why do I want to eat now?
-Why this particular food?
-Is this what I really need?

Choose. (comfort foods can be healthy)

Michael MantellMichael Mantell Contributor

Michael Mantell earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and his M.S. at Hahnemann Medical College, here he wrote his thesis on obesity. He’s served as the Chief Psychologist of Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego and the Chief Psychologist for the San Diego Police Department. He provides breakthrough strategies to help business leaders, athletes, individuals and families create healthy, fit and happy trajectories in life. He is the Senior Consultant for Behavioral Sciences for ACE, an international behavior science fitness presenter, an Advisor to numerous companies and fitness organizations, on the Sports Medicine team of The Sporting Club of San Diego and is featured in many international media outlets. He is listed in the 2013 “The 100 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness.”

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