Mindful vs Emotional Eating
Updated: Apr 18
How is it that food and eating have become such a common source of unhappiness? And why has it occurred in a country with an abundance of food? The fundamental reason for our imbalance with food and eating is that we've forgotten how to be present as we eat. We eat mindlessly.
Let's start with what Mindfulness is. It is deliberately paying attention, being fully aware of what is happening both inside and outside yourself - in your body, heart and mind - and outside yourself, in your environment. Mindfulness is awareness without criticism or judgement.
The last sentence is very important. In mindful eating we are not comparing ourselves to anyone else. We are not judging ourselves or others. We are simply witnessing the many sensations and thoughts that come up as we eat. The recipe for mindful eating calls for the warming effect of kindness and the spice of curiosity.
What is Mindful Eating?
Mindful eating involves paying full attention to the experience of eating and drinking, both inside and outside the body. We pay attention to the colors, smells, textures, flavors, temperatures, and even the sounds (crunch!) of our food. We pay attention to the experience of the body. Where in the body do we feel hunger? Where do we feel satisfaction? What does half-full feel like, or three quarters full?
We also pay attention to the mind. While avoiding judgement or criticism, we watch when the mind gets distracted, pulling away from full attention to what we are eating or drinking. We watch the impulses that arise after we've taken a few sips or bites: to grab a book, to turn on the TV, to call someone on our cell phone, or to do web search on some interesting subject. We notice the impulse and return to just eating.
We notice how eating affects our mood and how our emotions like anxiety influence our eating. Gradually we regain the sense of ease and freedom with eating that we had in childhood. It is our natural birthright.
The old habits of eating and not paying attention are not easy to change. Don't try to make drastic changes. Lasting change takes time, and is built on many small changes. We start simply.
People who emotionally eat reach for food several times a week or more to suppress and soothe negative feelings. They may even feel guilt or shame after eating this way, leading to a cycle of excess eating and associated issues, like weight gain.
What causes someone to eat because of their emotions?
Anything from work stress to financial worries, health issues to relationship struggles may be the root cause of your emotional eating.
It’s an issue that affects both sexes. But according to different studies, emotional eating is more common with women than with men.
Negative emotions may lead to a feeling of emptiness or an emotional void. Food is believed to be a way to fill that void and create a false feeling of “fullness” or temporary wholeness.
Other factors include:
retreating from social support during times of emotional need
not engaging in activities that might otherwise relieve stress, sadness, and so on
not understanding the difference between physical and emotional hunger
using negative self-talking that’s related to bingeing episodes. This can create a cycle of emotional eating
changing cortisol levels in response to stress, leading to cravings.
Emotional hunger vs. true hunger
Humans must eat to live. So, you may wonder how to distinguish between emotional cues and true hunger cues. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are several differences that might help clue you in to what you’re experiencing.
Physical and emotional hunger may be easily confused, but there are key differences between the two. Pay attention to how and when your hunger starts as well as how you feel after eating.
How to stop emotional eating
Emotional hunger isn’t easily quelled by eating
While filling up may work in the moment, eating because of negative emotions often leaves people feeling more upset than before. This cycle typically doesn’t end until a person addresses emotional needs head on.
Find other ways to cope with stress
This could mean writing in a journal, reading a book, or finding a few minutes to otherwise relax and decompress from the day.
Move your body
Some people find relief in getting regular exercise. A walk or jog around the block or a quickie yoga routine may help in particularly emotional moments.
Others are calmed by turning inward to practices like meditation. Simple deep breathing is meditation that you can do almost anywhere. Sit in a quiet space and focus on your breath — slowly flowing in and out of your nostrils.
Start a food diary
Keeping a log of what you eat and when you eat it may help you identify triggers that lead to emotional eating. You can jot down notes in a notebook or turn to technology with an app like MyFitnessPal.
While it can be challenging, try to include everything you eat — however big or small — and record the emotions you’re feeling in that moment.
Also, if you choose to seek medical help about your eating habits, your food diary can be a useful tool to share with your doctor.
Eat a healthy diet, Take common offenders out of your pantry
Making sure you get enough nutrients to fuel your body is also key. It can be difficult to distinguish between true and emotional hunger. If you eat well throughout the day, it may be easier to spot when you’re eating out of boredom or sadness or stress.
Still having trouble? Try reaching for healthy snacks, like fresh fruit or vegetables, plain popcorn, and other low-fat, low-calorie foods. Consider trashing or donating foods in your cupboards that you often reach for in moments of strife. Think high-fat, sweet or calorie-laden things, like chips, chocolate, and ice cream.
Pay attention to volume
Measuring out portions and choosing small plates to help with portion control are mindful eating habits to work on developing.
Once you’ve finished one helping, give yourself time before going back for a second. You may even want to try another stress-relieving technique, like deep breathing, in the meantime.
Difference Between Being Hungry and Thirsty
Whenever you think you may be hungry, try drinking a glass of water and waiting 15 minutes. If this satisfies you, you were just thirsty. If you still feel your stomach grumbling, you're probably hungry. If drinking a glass of water or eating a snack doesn't seem to satisfy you, you could be experiencing a craving or emotional hunger, rather than true hunger. I like smoothies and shakes personally as a happy medium between thirst and mindful eating. My Ninja is my best friend. This is the model I have: https://amzn.to/2LIXaPo and I love it for making small and large shakes. Drinking one of those tends to satisfy both hunger and thirst.
Resist isolation in moments of sadness or anxiety. Even a quick phone call to a friend or family member can do wonders for your mood. There are also formal support groups that can help.
Your doctor may give you a referral to a counselor or coach who can help you identify the emotions at the route of your hunger.
You may find yourself eating in front of the television, computer, or some other distraction. Try switching off the tube or putting down your phone the next time you find yourself in this pattern.
By focusing on your food, the bites you take, and your level of hunger, you may discover that you’re eating emotionally. Some even find it helpful to focus on chewing 10 to 30 times before swallowing a bite of food.
Doing these things gives your mind time to catch up to your stomach.
Work on positive self-talk
Feelings of shame and guilt are associated with emotional eating. It’s important to work on the self-talk you experience after an episode — or it may lead to a cycle of emotional eating behavior.
Instead of coming down hard, try learning from your setback. Use it as an opportunity to plan for the future. And be sure to reward yourself with self-care measures — taking a bath, going for a leisurely walk, and so on — when you make strides.
Looking for resources for you personally? Feel free to contact me and I can research community organizations and programs in your area that can help:).
Interested in a fitness/wellness consultation or have some questions about nutrition and your current fitness program? Join any of my groups online (Facebook) and/or pick up my book, How to be Fit for Life - Eight Proven Steps to Reaching Your Fitness Goals, Getting Results, and Living the Fitness Life for more help with your fitness journey. And please feel free to contact me and I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have:).