Emotional Hunger

Picture of Claire Chewning RDN Way app Partner

She graduated from James Madison University with a B.S. in Dietetics and completed her dietetic internship at The Ohio State University. She owns a virtual private practice and is passionate about helping individuals heal from chronic dieting and disordered eating so that they can discover more peace, satisfaction, and trust in their relationships with food + body. When she’s not working, you can find her reading a fiction novel on the beach, listening to Taylor Swift on repeat, or enjoying her favorite food…a good ole’ fashioned PB&J. Check out her work and learn more here.

Life can be a wild ride of different emotions. It’s like a roller coaster, with ups and downs that catch us off guard. We may cope by turning to food which can be hard to manage. In this article, we’ll explore the tricky aspect of emotional hunger. You will also discover simple tricks to help you take control of your relationship with food. Let’s get started!

What Is Emotional Hunger

There are 4 major forms of hunger: physical, taste, emotional, and practical hunger. Today, I’m here to help you expand your understanding of a subject that’s core to the intuitive eating journey – emotional hunger.

Four women, each expressing different aspects of emotional hunger in a supportive and understanding way

First off, what is emotional hunger? It happens when food becomes a tool to manage your emotions. It doesn’t matter when you are sad, bored, lonely, or stressed. And even, at the peak of your happy days. It’s hard to resist the call of comfort food.

But here’s the catch: Emotional eating isn’t really about your stomach being hungry. No, it’s all about feeding your emotions instead of nourishing your body. Imagine trying to solve a relationship problem with ice cream. It may be comforting at the moment, but it doesn’t resolve your underlying issue.

A Little Biology of Emotional Hunger

Are you curious about the biological basis behind emotional hunger?

Emotional hunger happens because our brains, hormones, and feelings all work together. When we feel emotionally hungry, it’s because our brain goes through different chemical processes. One important part of the brain is called the limbic system. This area of the brain controls our emotions and motivations.

In return, emotional eating makes our brain release chemicals like dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for giving us pleasure and reward. It gives us a temporary good feeling that helps us feel better when we’re upset.

Sometimes, stress hormones like cortisol can make us want to eat more. When we’re feeling down, our cortisol levels go up. In return, we might crave high-calorie foods that taste good. This event is called “emotional eating” or “comfort eating” because it can give us a brief sense of comfort and make us feel happier.

Our gut, which is connected to our brain, also has a role in emotional hunger. It produces hormones, like ghrelin, that can affect our emotions and appetite. When we’re feeling sad or stressed, ghrelin can increase, making us feel even hungrier.

Remember, emotional hunger is not just about our bodies. It’s also important to take care of our emotional needs with support from others and by looking after our feelings. By doing this, we can have a healthier relationship with food and feel better emotionally.

What Are Emotional Hunger Cues

Emotional hunger cues are signs that show someone might be feeling emotional hunger instead of physical hunger. These cues help people tell the difference between their emotions and their need for food. Some common cues include:

1. Strong cravings: You may develop sudden specific comfort foods, like sweets or junk food. This can be a sign of emotional hunger rather than physical hunger.

2. Eating without thinking: Eating without paying attention to how hungry or full you are is a common emotional hunger cue. This can mean unconscious eating even when you’re not physically hungry anymore.

3. Seeking comfort foods: Emotional hunger often makes you want specific foods that make you feel better, like ice cream or pizza. It’s about finding emotional comfort, not just satisfying hunger.

4. Emotion triggers: Certain feelings, like loneliness, boredom, stress, or sadness, make emotional hunger stronger. These emotions can make you want to eat to feel better.

5. Hunger that comes and goes quickly: Emotional hunger tends to disappear quickly after the emotional need is temporarily met. It feels like a strong and urgent hunger that goes away once your emotion subsides.

Recognizing these cues helps you become aware of your emotional eating habits. You can then find other ways to take care of your emotional needs. Instead, you can seek support from loved ones, engage in hobbies, or practice mindfulness.

Diverse group of four women in one room together, each experiencing a unique emotion and holding a unique food

Is Emotional Eating Just Plain Bad?

Newsflash: Food shouldn’t be your only crutch when life gets tough. And let’s be real, relying on food to numb your feelings isn’t wise. But, avoiding emotions altogether isn’t the ideal path to take. Here’s the thing, demonizing emotional eating in every shape and form isn’t doing you any favors either.

There’s a balanced approach that we should explore. You should acknowledge that emotional eating isn’t ideal. Yet also understand that it’s okay to occasionally seek comfort in a favorite treat.

Emotional eating is a way your body tries to communicate its needs. Bear in mind, it may not be the best method. Here, your body is telling you that it seeks comfort, relief, or distraction from strong emotions or stress. It’s a signal saying, “I need something to make me feel better.”

Emotional eating isn’t always a negative thing, and here’s why.

It can bring comfort and temporary relief from strong emotions, acting as a form of self-care. Indulging in certain foods can boost our mood and bring us joy. For example, a piece of chocolate can boost positive emotions and enhance our overall well-being. In moderation, these small indulgences can be a source of joy and pleasure.

It’s essential to understand that emotions are a normal part of being human. Hence, emotional eating may help us acknowledge and deal with them. However, it’s important to find a balance and avoid too much emotional eating. It can cause unhealthy habits and physical problems. Instead, be aware of how we eat and try to find healthier ways to cope. So, we can enjoy the advantages of occasional emotional eating while taking care of our well-being.

Get To Know 7 Ways To Cope With Emotional Eating

Coping with emotional eating is a journey. It involves understanding our emotions and finding healthier ways to address them. So, here are 7 strategies to help you navigate this process and foster a more balanced relationship with food and emotions:

1. Identify your emotions

It’s important to start by recognizing and acknowledging your emotions. When you feel the urge to eat, take a moment to pause and reflect on what you’re feeling. Are you experiencing stress, loneliness, boredom, or sadness? By identifying the emotions behind your desire to eat, you can address them more effectively.

2. Find alternative activities

Instead of using food for comfort, try alternative activities. Engage in hobbies like painting, gardening, or playing music. Move your body through walking, dancing, or yoga. Connect with loved ones in person or over the phone for support and connection. Playing with a Session or going through a past session in the Way app can be an easy activity to create more self-acceptance of your emotions, too. Especially the Sessions in the “Emotional Eats” Pathway.

3. Seek support

Don’t underestimate the power of support in dealing with emotional eating. Reach out to trusted friends, family, or a support group. Share your feelings and receive understanding and empathy. It can bring relief and fresh perspectives on managing emotions without relying on food. Remember, you’re not alone in this struggle. Connect with others who can listen and help you find healthier coping mechanisms.

4. Practice self-care

Prioritize self-care for managing emotional eating. Relax with a soothing bath, joyful books, or calming music. Nurturing your physical and emotional well-being reduces the urge to use food for comfort.

5. Keep a journal

Writing down your thoughts and feelings in a journal is a powerful tool. When you feel the need to eat emotionally, take a moment to jot down what you’re experiencing. Explore the underlying emotions, triggers, and patterns that emerge. This practice can help you gain insight into your emotional landscape. It is also helpful to develop healthier coping mechanisms.

6. Practice intuitive eating

Develop a healthier relationship with food and emotions through intuitive eating. Pay attention to food choices, eat slowly, and savor each bite. Be mindful of what you eat by savoring every bite. You should honor your body’s cues of hunger and fullness. Then, make deliberate choices about when and what you eat. Being present and attentive during meals helps avoid emotional eating triggered by impulses.

7. Seek professional help

If emotional eating persists, seek guidance. Consult a therapist specializing in emotional eating. Receive support, and personalized strategies, and address underlying emotional issues. Professionals empower long-term solutions and improve emotional well-being.

Remember, finding the right combination of strategies may take time and experimentation. Each person’s journey is unique. So be patient with yourself until you discover what works best for you.

The Verdict On Emotional Hunger

Emotional hunger happens when our feelings mix with our desire for food. Understanding the signs of emotional hunger helps us know when it’s happening.

To take care of emotional hunger, we need to find ways to comfort ourselves without eating. This can mean getting support from others, doing things that make us feel good, or practicing mindfulness. Leveraging an interactive and safe environment like in Way can be really helpful, too.

Remember, it’s normal to feel emotionally hungry sometimes. And, it’s important to take care of our emotions. Being kind to ourselves and finding non-food ways to feel better helps us have a healthier balance in our lives.