Is Emotional Eating Sabotaging Your Weight-Loss Efforts?

Successful weight loss begins when you stop dieting, tune into your body, eat when you are hungry and stop when you are satisfied. This sounds simple, so why aren’t we all the weight we desire to be?


The stumbling block in this formula is that often the desire to eat has very little to do with physical hunger. If we are not physically hungry when we start to eat, how do we know when we are satisfied? We don’t! A hunger that is not physical in origin cannot be satisfied by food, so no matter how much you eat, you will never find the fulfilment you are looking for.


The term given to this behaviour is ‘emotional eating’. Emotional hunger differs from physical hunger in that it originates in our head, not our stomach. It is triggered by a mental stimulus, either conscious or subconscious, not actual physical hunger.  


Emotional hunger can be HUGE! It can have us driving miles to find somewhere to buy a bar (or six) of chocolate at 3am on a cold wet night, or polishing off all the sweets we bought for the children the night before Christmas. At the moment emotional hunger strikes we feel powerless, unable to do anything other than go with the urge to eat, eat until we feel sick, ashamed and disgusted with ourselves and our lack of willpower.


Food is linked to our emotions, this is normal. We eat to celebrate a happy event, to show someone that we care about them or to mark the passing of a loved one. Food is a huge part of our lives.  However it is when food and feelings become inextricably intertwined and food becomes a psychological coping mechanism that problems begin to occur.   


This relationship between food and emotions often starts in childhood. Think back to when you were a child. How were you punished, rewarded or controlled by food? When you behaved in a way that displeased your parents did you have food withheld from you; ‘’be naughty and you don’t get pudding’’? Was it used to comfort you when you hurt yourself or as a reward when the adults thought that you were being good?


As a result of this conditioning food takes on a new meaning, it changes from being simply a source of nutrition to way in which we control our emotions. Food becomes the way we deal with stress and our sense of powerlessness.  As a result, when we feel unhappy, distressed or self critical we turn to food to salve our pain. Food becomes our crutch, yet causes us further pain because, by eating more than our body needs we gain weight. Or at least fail to lose the weight we so desperately wish to shed.


So, how do we know that our urge to eat is a true physical hunger, not an emotional hunger? At the moment hunger strikes we have the chance to take a pause, long enough to tune into our body, ask it what it wants, and consider the options available to us. Tune in and ask the following questions:



If it came on suddenly and dramatically it is probably emotional hunger triggered by something in your mind. Physical hunger comes on much more slowly, beginning as a rumble and growing gently into hunger pangs. Physical hunger will wait; emotional hunger wants to be fed immediately.



If you can feel it rumbling in your stomach or your throat it is probably physical hunger, if it is elsewhere in your body or you can’t really pin it down to one particular point it is probably emotional hunger.



Emotional hunger usually demands a specific food, one that you often go back to when you get triggered emotionally; chocolate, biscuits, pizza. Emotional hunger knows which foods to demand, and demand it does, it wants them, and only them, immediately! 


If you have just finished eating and hunger strikes you can safely assume that the hunger you are feeling is emotional. Something has triggered you and you want to eat because of it. Feeding an emotional hunger with food will never result in a feeling of satisfaction as emotional hunger needs something other than food to satisfy it.


Emotional hunger needs to be filled in another way; if you are bored, angry, frustrated, tired or lonely; eating will not make you feel any better in the long term. You have got into the habit of using food as a substitute for filling an emotional need. This is not intentional, it usually happens without us realising, in our subconscious mind. By getting into the habit of tuning in before we eat, we can discover what triggers us to overeat or eat when we are not hungry.  In time this awareness gives us freedom from the sense of powerlessness that we feel at the moment the emotional hunger strikes.


However many times you open the fridge to find the love you need to soothe you emotionally, you will not find it. The pain of emotional hunger is a far greater pain than the pain of a rumbling stomach. This week do something different; take time to tune into, and ask, your body what it really wants, you may be surprised by the answers.