Physical Hunger versus Emotional Hunger
What is the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger? Sarah explained the physiological process of hunger: ghrelin is the hunger hormone. It begins to build in our stomachs within 30 minutes after we eat a meal. 3-4 hours after the meal, ghrelin begins to build more rapidly. For a mental image, you can think of it this way — ghrelin is the hunger hormone (grrrrr my stomach is growling!) and if we don’t eat, then the Gremlins come out. As any child from the ’80s can tell you, it is not good to feed the gremlins! Observation and knowledge are powerful — and in this case, it can help us to keep the gremlins at bay and combat eating as a response to emotions.
Physical hunger comes from your body — your stomach growling, a slight pain in your belly area — whereas emotional hunger comes from the mind — a craving for one specific food such as coffee or a sweet treat for an afternoon pick-me-up. The best way to prepare yourself to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger is to reset the balance. Because we know that ghrelin build-up increases 3-4 hours after every meal, we can begin to retrain our body to recognize the proper physical hunger cues by eating a meal or snack every 3-4 hours, beginning with the first within an hour after waking. We are constantly exposed to the message that less is more, but the truth is that with food it’s just not true. When we deprive ourselves of food, we lose the ability to distinguish between physical hunger and emotional hunger. Food is not the enemy, we need to embrace our hunger. Once our bodies are fueled and energized, it is much easier to handle emotions, stress, and cravings without turning to emotional eating.
When you are retraining your body, you may find that you need to set a schedule for meals. At the beginning of this journey, it’s not recommended that you listen to your body’s hunger cues as the appropriate timing to eat because we have spent so much time listening to the wrong cues. First, plan to eat breakfast within an hour of waking. If you work out in the morning, choose a snack within an hour of waking and eat breakfast after your workout. Schedule your lunch within 3-4 hours of breakfast, an afternoon snack 3-4 hours after lunch, and dinner 3-4 hours after your snack. It may be helpful to schedule alarms on your phone or enter appointments on your calendar to remind yourself of the times that you’ve chosen at the beginning.
Planning ahead is also very important for this process. Prepare healthy foods for yourself when you pack your children’s lunch or even the night before, as that way you’ll have great options on hand. Typically, with physical hunger, you will eat whatever food is available, but with emotional eating, you have a specific craving. By providing yourself with healthy options even when you’re away from home, you’ll be able to fuel your body properly which helps to avoid the emotional hunger cravings. Scheduling your meals and eating healthy options with a combination of a protein and a produce will help you to reset your metabolism — making your weight loss and fitness goals more attainable.
Dining with Elegance
Set yourself up for success by dining with elegance so that you nourish your body and your soul with each meal and snack. The food that you eat and the way you eat it is just as important as the schedule of consumption. In addition to eating every 3-4 hours, it’s necessary to ensure that the food you are providing your body will nourish it. Choose healthy options that include a combination of a protein and a produce to provide your body with the fuel that it needs without extra sugars, additives, and chemicals that harm it. You don’t have to count calories, but you do need to choose foods that will have a positive effect on your body. Corinne has an excellent article on what to do if you don’t want to count calories and it also includes a free food journal that is highly recommended.
The goal of eating healthy options every 3-4 hours is to keep your body fueled. If you go too long without food (when the gremlins come out!), you will find yourself eating until you are overstuffed, and both overeating and undereating are unhealthy for your body. Being in tune with your hunger to ensure that you go to neither extreme is very helpful. The real magic happens when in addition to this balance, you also pull yourself back and observe without judgment the emotions that you are feeling before you eat, while you eat, and after you eat. These observations will help you to make decisions objectively on whether it is physical or emotional hunger and also what food you should eat.
In addition to providing your body with nourishing fuel, the manner in which you eat is also important. No more mindless eating! Challenge yourself to sit down at a table with NO smartphone, tablet, computer, etc., and give yourself permission to eat and enjoy what you are eating. Be in the moment and present with your meal — appreciate your food for fueling your body. Take at least 10-15 minutes (more is preferable) to eat your meal, making sure that you take time to savor the flavor. In this way, your food not only nourishes your body, but also your soul.
Trade Negative Self-Talk for Visualizations
This is a simple truth — we all judge ourselves. It is very difficult to look at our own reactions and responses to stress — whether they are from food, money, work, friends, family, or any other source — objectively enough to make an informed decision about what action we should take to respond to our stress. When we are judging ourselves and listening to our own negative self-talk, we can change it into a positive through visualization. First, we must tune into our minds and observe the stories that we are telling ourselves through the negative self-talk. Once we know what it is that we are judging ourselves about, we can begin to rewrite our story through visualization. Just as athletes do, we can visualize the outcome that we would like for ourselves, where we want to go, and rewrite our story. People make positive changes in their lives all the time — and you can too! It is only when you tell yourself that it is impossible for you.
Steps to End Emotional Eating
1. Observe — Record your emotions before, during, and after eating
2. Find the Why — Review your observations to reveal what emotion is leading to your behavior
3. Do the work — When you are ready, step back and think about what is missing that is causing the emotions leading to your behavior AND speak up for yourself to communicate what you need
With emotional eating, you have time — whether it is 5 seconds or a full minute — between you are feeling the emotions that drive your behavior and the behavior that you’re choosing. Being able to put yourself in that moment and feel where you are, you can pull yourself back away from the food. It all starts with that choice. You have the time and the power to say yes or say no. If you tell yourself that you don’t have the power, then, of course, you will not be successful, but if you believe that you have the power to make this change happen, then you will. To start with, make a list of other activities that you could be doing such as checking your email, reading a book, having a cup of tea, calling a friend – anything that is NOT eating so that you can take a step back from that desire to eat. Pull yourself back, center yourself, do a different activity – if you’re still hungry, then it’s likely to be physical hunger rather than emotional hunger. This is how we rewire your brain to stop the emotional eating.
Lower Your Stress Level
Stress is a very powerful force in our lives. Many people find themselves emotionally hungry as a response to stress, and here’s why – stress increases your level of cortisol and lowers your lowers of happy hormones. When we eat food, our level of happy hormones increases, and so we find people using food as a self-medication for stress. However, there are better ways to lower our stress levels that are much more helpful for our waistlines! Sarah has an excellent article that includes 5 tips for lowering your stress.
Ways to Reduce Stress
- Practice deep breathing – taking just three deep breaths (it takes about 20 seconds) physically lowers your cortisol levels immediately.
- Have a healthy snack on hand – cortisol, the stress hormone, depletes your body’s cells of blood sugar – this extra blood sugar provides you with a boost of energy useful for a fight-or-flight response, and leaves your cells physically hungry. Nourish your body with a healthy snack that is a combination of a protein and a produce to replenish your cells and combat the effects of the cortisol
- Use a stress relief app or website – using a site such as calm.com (also available as an iPhone app) or the TakeABreak app can help you to reduce your stress level and calm your body’s response without eating
- Take a moment to stretch – take the time to do a few simple stretches when you’re feeling stressed. Reconnecting with your body in this way can help you to recenter yourself and more adequately deal with the emotional response from the raised levels of cortisol
Communicate Your Needs
Communicating your needs is a practice that is of huge importance — and it’s also very difficult for us. You have to take a step back and look at what you really need, and communicate those needs to the people around you. For example, with your friends, you could say, “Whenever I see or hear you body bashing yourself or talking negatively about yourself, it really makes me feel bad and I need that not to happen.” Many of us are not comfortable expressing ourselves this way, telling people exactly what we need, but finding your voice is a very powerful tool. Begin by asserting yourself to your loved ones, the people immediately around you. This will help you to build your confidence so that you can speak up for yourself with other people as well.
When you are communicating your needs, you may need to dissociate yourself with toxic relationships or people who make you feel bad. They may not be purposely trying to make you feel bad, but the point is still there — you have the power to remove negative people from your life and it is ok for you to do that! You create your own environment, so give yourself the permission to make it a positive environment and remove the negative people from around you. That can mean unfriending people on Facebook who only post half-naked gym photos or the people who only post super positive updates — if it makes you feel bad, then cut it out of your life. The important part is to do it quietly — just because YOU feel bad about it, does not mean that you need to turn it into a big drama by announcing that you are cutting them out because they make you feel bad. For more help learning and practicing how to communicate your needs, check out Corinne’s worksheet on how to get what you need.
Tips to End Emotional Eating
- Eat every 3-4 hours to be in tune with your physical hunger.
- Eat within 1 hour of waking up (just a snack if you workout in the morning, then breakfast after you work out)
- Combine foods — a protein and a produce — at your meals and snacks. Healthy fats are good too, just make sure it’s a combination!
- Set up a schedule for eating with reminders on your calendar, phone, etc.
- Prepare your food ahead of time and take it with you so you’ll have healthy options available.
- When you feel hungry or are craving food, take a few deep breaths, stretch, and take a few moments to think about what your intentions are before the meal. This step will help you figure out if it’s physical hunger or emotional eating.
- Observation without judgment is powerful — keep a food journal in which you observe how you feel before, during, and after you eat — connecting the dots to WHY you are eating can help you to make changes to curb emotional eating.
- End stress eating by finding other ways to lower your stress and cortisol levels such as deep breathing, apps like calm.com or takeabreak, yoga, etc.
- Practice communicating your needs.
- Replace negative self-talk with visualization of you eating healthy and nourishing your body.
- Make a list of other activities that you can do instead of eating when you feel hungry to help you determine if it is physical or emotional hunger.
Above all, remember that everything, especially emotional eating: the struggle is part of the story — do not judge yourself harshly or be disappointed in yourself because, without that struggle, you wouldn’t have your journey. Through the hard times, we are able to grow!