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Put the Brakes on Emotional Eating

Last updated: January 30, 2023

A healthy lifestyle means we’re aware of what foods our body needs and we practice mindful eating. That is, we think about what our bodies need as we prepare menus, shop for our food, prepare it and eat it.

Lori Knapp, Registered Dietitian, ThedaCare Medical Center-New London

Do you experience food cravings? Do they come on suddenly, or are they singularly focused on one type of food, such as carbohydrates or sugar? If so, you may be experiencing emotional or “head” hunger.

“There are different kinds of hunger,” says Lori Knapp, a registered dietitian at ThedaCare Medical Center-New London. “There’s physical hunger when our body signals the need for fuel and nutrients, and then there’s head or stress hunger when we think we’re hungry because we’re emotional about something.”

It’s important to pay attention to both types of hunger.

“When our bodies tell us we’re hungry, it’s important to listen to that stomach growl and make sure we’re providing healthy fuel to our body,” Knapp says. “A healthy lifestyle means we’re aware of what foods our body needs and we practice mindful eating. That is, we think about what our bodies need as we prepare menus, shop for our food, prepare it and eat it.”

Head hunger is also a real feeling, Knapp says, but if we stop and evaluate what’s going on, we may recognize it as an emotional reaction. Normal hunger comes on gradually, whereas head hunger starts suddenly, or at a specific time such as every evening, and typically focuses on a sharp craving for a particular type of food.

“That’s the kind of hunger that causes us to eat a bag of chips or a carton of ice cream without thinking, which we often later regret,” she says.

Knapp suggests asking yourself these questions before you eat:

  • Am I truly hungry?
  • When did I last eat?
  • Am I thirsty?
  • Am I angry, tired or upset?
  • Am I bored?

The answers to these questions will help you determine if you’re experiencing physical hunger or head hunger and help you figure out whether you really need to eat.

“Sometimes we’re just thirsty, and it manifests as hunger. Drinking a glass of water might help the urge to eat pass and save you from taking in unnecessary calories,” Knapp says.

Health experts provide these tips to curb emotional eating:

  • Keep a food diary. Write down what, when and how much you eat, how you’re feeling when you eat and how hungry you are. Your eating patterns may reveal the connection between mood and food.
  • Tame your stress. If stress contributes to your emotional eating, try practicing a stress management technique, such as yoga, meditation or deep breathing.
  • Have a hunger reality check. Is your hunger physical or emotional? If you ate just a few hours ago and don’t have a rumbling stomach, you’re probably not hungry. Give the craving time to pass.
  • Get support. You’re more likely to give in to emotional eating if you lack a strong support network. Lean on family and friends or consider joining a support group to address life problems.
  • Fight boredom. Instead of snacking when you’re not hungry, distract yourself and substitute a healthier behavior. Take a walk, play a game or read a book.
  • Take away temptation. Don’t keep hard-to-resist comfort foods in your home. Avoid grocery shopping when you’re angry or upset.
  • Don’t deprive yourself. Eat satisfying amounts of healthier foods, enjoy an occasional treat and get plenty of variety to help curb cravings.
  • Snack healthy. If you feel the urge to eat between meals, choose a healthy snack, such as fresh fruit, vegetables with low-fat dip, nuts or unbuttered popcorn.
  • Learn from setbacks. If you have an episode of emotional eating, forgive yourself and start fresh the next day. Plan for how you can prevent it in the future.

Knapp encourages everyone to strive to live an overall healthy lifestyle. “Living a healthy lifestyle means we’re aware of the food and nutrients our bodies need to be healthy, that we try to manage our eating habits and that we are mindful about when and what we eat,” she says. “If we follow those guidelines, we’ll be on the way to establishing good eating habits.”

Tags: bariatrics emotional eating healthy eating snacking Weight Loss Surgery Weight Management

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