I often get asked about emotional eating and eating for reasons other than physical hunger. In truth, there are many different reasons that we eat. Some dieticians say there are as many as 8 different kinds of hunger we experience including hungers like eye hunger, from seeing a food commercial, for example, or smell hunger from scents of a bakery wafting through the air. Most professionals can distill it down to three different kinds of hunger; I like to call them stomach hunger, sensory hunger, and heart hunger.
Stomach hunger is that grumbling tummy, physical hunger we experience when we haven't eaten for a number of hours. Sensory hunger is a particular taste or texture our mouths are craving; perhaps we saw or smelled something, or our taste buds are niggling at us about a certain craving - something crunchy, sweet, sour, creamy, salty... Lastly, heart hunger is hunger we experience as a means of coping with negative emotions we are feeling.
As humans we need to eat to live and negative emotions are part of our experience, which can make things tricky! How do we sort out stomach hunger from other hunger? Here are a few clues that may help:
It develops slowly, over time
You desire a variety of food groups
You feel the sensation of fullness and take it as a cue to stop eating
You have no negative feelings about eating
Hunger comes on suddenly
You crave only certain foods
You may binge on food and not feel a sensation of fullness
You feel guilt or shame about eating
Is it normal to eat for reasons other than stomach hunger? It is. Food is not just fuel; it is used for comfort, celebration, grieving, and connection. However, when our main go-to for coping with negative emotions is food rather than developing other, non-food, ways of coping it can result in weight struggles and impact our health.
Step One: Recognize that eating for reasons other than stomach hunger is normal. Let go of any feelings of guilt and shame associated with heart hunger. This just leads us to continue eating. Acknowledge you are eating for reasons other than stomach hunger. Remind yourself gently that food will not make you feel better in the way you hope, it might even make you feel worse.
Step Two: Actively work at finding other ways to manage negative emotions: talking with friends, going for a walk, resting, taking on a project, having a cup of tea, or meditating, to name a few ideas. Also, keeping a food diary and reflecting on the type of hunger you experience may help identify patterns and areas to begin taking steps towards developing other strategies.
Take it one step at a time. Use each instance as an opportunity to learn; seek support from a coach or counsellor if you feel that may help. Tough love don't work here. Above all, practice self-kindness.