Michelle Biton, MSc
Are you eating out of physical or emotional hunger? Many of us have a tumultuous love affair with food.
Many of us have a tumultuous love affair with food. At times we're in control, but then we break down and indulge in behaviour that we know is not good for us on top of the guilt and disgust created by eating that extra cookie. On and off. Up and down. And so the affair continues. You know you can't live without food, yet you don't know how to live peacefully with it.
If one of your personal goals is to lose weight permanently (that means getting to a healthy, ideal weight and staying there), you must make peace with food. How? Hunger is the key.
Understanding the difference between emotional and physical hunger and the reasons behind your food cravings will bring you closer to your goal. Awareness of your hunger is the first step; taking action based on your awareness is the second step. Together, they help you understand your perception of food and your eating habits, and they offer a constructive way toward achieving (and maintaining) a healthy body image.
Recently, I met with a client who was extremely unhappy and depressed about her appearance and weight. As we began working together, I noticed how unaware she was of her hunger. Although she was intimately acquainted with food itself, she didn't understand her eating patterns. She had no idea why she ate so much, so frequently.
In order to move toward a healthy lifestyle, I first helped her increase her awareness. It was essential that she learn how to distinguish between the two types of hunger and to realize there was more to her frustrations with food than just the act of eating.
Emotional Versus Physical Hunger
Hunger that begins outside of the body, and is stimulated by sight, smell, memory or a past experience, is emotional hunger. It results in reactive eating primarily indulging in the food we crave as a result of those external stimuli. Emotional hunger also leads to experiential eating eating to comfort, calm, excite, please or reward. Physical hunger, however, meets a physiological need that begins in the stomach with an empty, hollow, often painful feeling. If this hunger is not addressed, a person may feel irritated, tired, even dizzy.
As part of my client's process toward self-awareness, she agreed to write about her feelings in a daily journal. With a record of her feelings and knowledge of her eating habits, I was able to coach her on how to identify whether her eating had been prompted by emotional or physical hunger. She was eventually able to recognize the difference and the reasons she ate.
Few of us eat for purely physical reasons. Eating for non-physical reasons is often our reaction to immense external pressure. We live in a society that spends billions of dollars targeting our senses with food products, enticing us to eat for eating's sake. It's understandable that we give in. We also receive unhealthy messages from the media, such as portrayals of the emotional, depressed woman eating a bucket of ice cream.
Reprogramming Your Habits
So, how do you establish a healthy relationship with food? Learn how to diffuse the emotional power food has in your life. If we understand the triggers and temptations that prompt us to eat reactively, we will become aware of our patterns. Out of that self-awareness, we can begin to alter our eating habits and work toward eating for physical reasons instead of emotional ones.
Having a healthy relationship with food is possible. Eliminating your frustrations in relation to food is possible. Here are five steps to help you get on the right track.
Start believing that you can have a healthy relationship with food. You might feel stuck but you aren't.
Learn the difference between emotional and physical hunger. Write the definitions on a piece of paper so you have to think about what they mean. You'll be more likely to remember them and differentiate them as they occur.
After every meal and snack this week, jot down whether you ate it out of emotional or physical hunger. This will help you get in touch with your physical needs and your emotional cravings.
For every meal and snack, use a scale of zero to 10 to measure how hungry you are. Zero is not hungry and 10 is ravenous. Concentrate on eating the majority of your food when you feel between six and eight on the hunger scale.
Start a journal and spend 10 minutes every day writing in it. To keep in touch with your emotions, write about your day and how you feel.
By implementing these steps, you're already on the path to greater self-awareness and to positive change in your eating habits. As a result, you will reach your ideal body weight and you will gain control of your eating habits. Start right now.