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Distinguishing emotional and physical hunger

Paoli Hospital February 9, 2015 Wellness Articles

Everyone can relate to emotional eating: finding yourself elbow-deep in a bag of chips in the middle of your favorite TV show, recovering from a bad day at work with a burger and fries, or celebrating a birthday with an extra slice of cake. While a little indulgence isn’t always a negative thing, food has gone from being a source of nourishment to a source of comfort.

“Emotional eating is stimulated by the thoughts, feelings, and cues you experience in the environments you’ve come to associate with food,” explains Marilyn Ryan, MD, endocrinologist at Paoli Hospital. “Think of Super Bowl parties or movie theaters. They’re both places where it’s tempting to eat, just because you’re in an environment where that is encouraged and considered the norm.”

Unfortunately, emotional eating isn’t just nutritionally unhealthy; it can also lead to a dangerous cycle of negative body image, regret and guilt. The key to avoiding this spiral of negative side effects is recognizing the differences between physical and emotional hunger.

Recognizing emotional hunger

Many people are able to easily recognize instances of emotional eating. But, for others, distinguishing between physical and emotional hunger is more difficult.

“Physical hunger is based in the stomach, occurs out of physical need, and is open to different foods to satisfy it,” says Dr. Ryan. “When you’re physically hungry, the idea of an apple is just as appealing to you as the idea of a cupcake.”

Emotional hunger, however, is marked by cravings for a specific food and other traits like sudden hunger, the urge to eat right away, automatic or absent-minded eating, eating as a result of an upsetting situation and, ultimately, guilt following a binge.

Identifying your emotional hunger triggers

In addition to recognizing emotional hunger when it occurs, it’s also important to recognize your triggers for emotional eating. While many people think of emotional eating as isolated instances, it can be more frequent.

“Some people can experience triggers for emotional eating every week. Maybe it’s walking by a coffee shop every day that you used to frequent, or working late one night and ordering a heavy take-out order,” says Dr. Ryan. “It’s important to identify and avoid these triggers when possible.”

Next time you catch yourself tempted to cave to your emotional hunger cues, write down some possible causes to determine what could be causing it. Over time, you’ll notice patterns and be able to create a plan of action to avoid the negative side effects of emotional hunger.

Although it’s not likely that you’ll swear off emotional eating forever, having a better understanding of your triggers and alternatives can help reduce these instances. If you’re having trouble handling stressful or difficult situations that might be causing you to turn to emotional eating, visit our website.