Updated: Mar 25, 2022
Trying to eat healthy on a good day can be challenging enough but when the pressure is on at work or family issues leave us anxious, it's even harder. We may gravitate to the foods that previously gave us comfort. Let's face it, we all do it from time to time but if your go-to coping mechanism to handle stress, boredom, or even elation is food, you could be carrying more than just extra weight.
Brain Wansink, Ph.D., director of the Food and Brand Lab at the University of Illinois says that the type of comfort food we are drawn to depends on our mood. For instance, people in happy moods tend to go for pizza or steak. Sad people reach for ice cream and #cookies and bored people reach for potato chips. Whatever kind of food it is, it's important to recognize the difference between real and emotional hunger. It may be beneficial to keep a food and mood journal to determine if there are triggers- whether happy, sad, anxious, etc. that lead to emotional eating.
According to the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center website, there are several differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger:
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly; physical #hunger occurs gradually. When you are eating to fill a void that isn't related to an empty stomach, you crave a specific food, such as #pizza or ice cream, and only that food will meet your need. When you eat because you are actually hungry, you're open to options.
Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly with the food you crave; physical hunger can wait. Even when you are full, if you're eating to satisfy an #emotional need, you're more likely to keep eating. When you're eating because you're hungry, you're more likely to stop when you're full.
Emotional eating can leave behind feelings of guilt; eating when you are physically hungry does not.
I don't think any of us are going to abstain from cookies, chips, and ice cream. The key is moderation, not deprivation. Wansink suggests our memory of food peaks after about four bites, so if you only have those bites, a week later you'll recall as good an experience as if you polished off the whole thing. So have a few bites of the #chocolate chip muffin then call it quits. You'll be satisfied and not pack on as many calories.
Overcoming emotional eating may take some time. It certainly did for me. I was a closet eater - literally. Every now and then I reach for potato chips when I'm anxious or cookies when I'm sad but it just makes me feel worse. For the most part, I've found that physical activity works for me. The endorphins released after exercise make me feel great, and I actually feel better about my problem after a walk or walkout.