Do you have food cravings? Are you thinking about food constantly? Are you ‘obsessed’ with food? Does this picture look familiar?

If you answered YES to any of these questions, or even SOMETIMES, then you are experiencing something that is more common than you think and should continue reading.

People use food for a variety of reasons, including social and emotional reasons. How many times have you celebrated something and gone out to eat? How many times have you been upset and grabbed that pint of ice cream or chocolate bar? How about watching television and before you know it the bag of chips is gone? The topic of today’s blog, emotional eating, came out of a common theme that I see on a daily basis with my patients, but also lately several people have been asking me for ways to help conquer this feeling of always having food on their mind.

First, I think it is important to acknowledge that emotional eating is one of the many reasons people continue to struggle with weight. Think about it, if you are eating extra food and extra calories, then of course you may be struggling with your weight. The question is, what are you getting in return from participating in this behavior? The constant struggle, frustration, the weight gain? Most food people eat out of an emotion is comfort food, so most likely you are not gaining extra nutrients from these foods. So then the question is why are you doing it?

Emotional eating is simply eating out of an emotion, as opposed to eating out of true hunger. There is a difference between physiological hunger (not eating for several hours and being hungry and/or not eating the right foods to fill you up and keep you satisfied) and emotional hunger (out of happiness, loneliness, sadness, stress, or even boredom). The key is to be able to identify which hunger you have each time. The first step is to identify why you are eating; is it emotional hunger or physiological hunger? There are differences between the two for instance:

1. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly while physiological hunger occurs gradually.

2. When you are eating out of an emotion you most likely crave a specific food, such as comfort foods (pizza, ice cream, chocolate) and ONLY the food you are craving will make you feel satisfied. When you eat because you are actually hungry, you will eat what is available because if not you will starve.

3. When you are eating out of an emotion you feel like you MUST eat right this second, while physiological hunger can wait, perhaps until dinner is ready.

The main one, from my perspective (and being a psychologist) is:

4. Emotional eating leaves you with feelings of guilt, while physiological hunger does not. This then could cause a downward spiral of emotions and behaviors and would not leave you anywhere, but in a bad place (i.e. feel worse, then eat more, then feel worse, etc.)

So, what are my tips on how to conquer this? The first thing I tell people to do is take a few minutes before grabbing food and ask yourself “why am I eating” and “when is the last time I ate.” These questions will give you the answer. If you recently ate and it is for other reasons then I would recommend drinking water (it will fill your belly enough until it is time to eat) and then do something else (take a walk, make a phone call, clean, etc). In about 10 minutes you will probably be busy and your mind will be on something else and if that is the case then it was true emotional hunger. If after that time you still can’t get food off your mind, then you may truly be hungry and in that situation make a healthy choice….some fruit, veggies, etc. If these tips work, then fantastic, mission accomplished. Now, if they don’t work and you continue to think about food, crave food, etc. then I have additional tips for you and those can be a topic of a future blog.

If nothing else, remember food will NOT solve your problems and food is NOT the answer. You CAN find other ways to make yourself feel better. It WILL pass and you WILL feel better being healthy. We eat to live, we don’t live to eat. So, if nothing else, make the healthier choice.