Emotional Eating vs Mindful Eating

Originally written for LawTalk Magazine, published 31 August 2017


Food and eating can occupy a complicated place in our lives.  We know we need food to provide us with nourishment and energy and to satisfy hunger but oftentimes we also use food as a way to deal with stress and difficult emotions like sadness or boredom and to reward or treat ourselves.  Eating for these other reasons doesn’t really solve these problems either – usually the stress or emotional issue is still there after eating as well as feelings of guilt for overeating.

Emotional eating is about using food to feel better – eating to fulfil an emotional need, or to change an emotional state, as opposed to satisfying a physical hunger.

Emotional eaters know that food changes how they feel.  Eating changes your biochemistry (blood sugar levels, hormones and neurotransmitters) so that at the most basic biological level you know you’re helping to ensure survival.  It can also be a way to ‘numb out’ or ‘zone out’, to escape, distract or avoid something or it’s associated with promoting positive feelings of comfort and calm.

Using food to make yourself feel better, as a reward or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s something we all do at some time and it’s a part of being human – but when it becomes the main way you cope with life then it’s time to shine a spotlight on it and investigate further.

So how do you know the difference between an emotional hunger and a physical hunger?  There’s a few things to consider:

  • Emotional hunger is usually for specific foods – when you’re physically hungry any food will do but emotional hunger is usually about junk food, sugar and getting an instant energy hit.
  • Emotional hunger doesn’t stop – it will lead to overeating to the point of feeling uncomfortably full and you’ll still want more.
  • Emotional hunger is a head thing not a stomach thing – instead of a growling stomach signalling hunger, it’s more of a craving you can’t stop thinking about.
  • Emotional hunger is often connected to mindless eating – what you’re eating will be gone before you realise it, you won’t have paid much attention to it or really enjoyed it.
  • Emotional hunger usually results in regret, guilt and shame – if you feel like ‘I shouldn’t have eaten that’ it’s often a sign you’ve eaten for reasons other than to satisfy a physical hunger.

As a response to emotional eating, mindful eating techniques can help you to focus on positively changing your relationship with food.  Instead of focusing on what you can and can’t eat like a traditional ‘diet’ does, mindful eating shifts the focus to the way you eat.

Being fully present when you eat, tuning into your appetite and how you feel as you’re eating, you learn to control portion sizes, choose better options and avoid emotional triggers without the pressures of restrictive diet plans or relying on willpower to resist certain foods.

Mindful eating can help you to differentiate between emotional and physical hunger, increase your awareness to the triggers that prompt you to reach for food when you’re not physically hungry and give you freedom to choose how you respond.

Lynn Rossy, health psychologist and author of The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution, has helpfully simplified mindful eating into the BASICS:

Breathe and check for hunger and satiety before you eat: Taking a few deep breaths relaxes the body and moves the nervous system away from the ‘fight and flight’ that we spend so much of our days in and towards the ‘rest and digest’ or parasympathetic response.  In this state, we can better digest and assimilate our food.  As you’re taking these deep breaths, it’s a good time to check in with how you’re feeling on the hunger/fullness scale – have you experienced physical signs of hunger?  What are you hungry for?  Is it food/water/something else?

Assess your food: Look at your food and notice the colours, smells and textures.  Consider where it came from and how it got to be on your plate. When you consider the elements that created this meal, from the soil, water and sun through to the people that helped to bring it together, it’s hard not to feel gratitude for it.  Ask also if this is the food you really want to eat.  As you eat, continue to reassess the food to see if your first impressions were accurate and ask if you want to continue eating.

Slow down: These days, we often eat quickly, paying little or no attention to our food.  This can be a problem as it can take up to 20 minutes for the brain to register signals of fullness.  If we’ve eating too quickly we’ve often overeaten before we realise it.  Ways to slow down while you eat include putting down your fork or pausing and taking a breath between bites or chewing your food more thoroughly.

Investigate your hunger through the meal: As well as eating too quickly we also often eat while distracted – by work, television, phones etc.  Take away the distractions and give yourself time to focus on your meal.  Pay attention to the taste, smell and textures of your food and keep assessing your level of hunger and fullness as you go.  Do you still like the food on your plate?  Do you feel like you need to keep eating?  Remember it’s OK to stop or keep eating depending on your level of hunger and fullness.

Chew your food thoroughly: Chewing starts off the digestive process and signals to your brain that we’ve started to eat.  As you chew your food thoroughly you’ll eat more slowly, taste and feel the food you’re eating and enjoy it more.

Savour your food: Savouring your food is about taking the time to choose the food you want to eat and being fully present to enjoy the moment.  Paying attention to your food without distraction will help you to tune into how your body reacts to the food, your hunger and fullness levels, and whether you feel satisfied with what you’ve eaten.

Mindful eating is about shifting away from a ‘diet’ or weight loss focus and more towards listening to your body and feeding it what it needs to be healthy in a sustainable and long-term way.  Rather than placing limits on the kinds of foods or amount of foods you eat, the emphasis is on figuring out and honing into how and why you eat or want to eat.  As we build this awareness, we can then choose how to respond to our feelings rather than being controlled by them or simply reacting to them.

While weight loss can be a result of this approach, it is not the goal.  When you eat what you need in the amount that its needed, your body weight will stabilise in a healthy range for you.

Although diet plans may help in the short term and get fast results, as much as 85% of obese individuals who lose weight on weight loss programmes return to or exceed their starting weight in a few years.  If this sounds familiar to you, maybe what you’re eating is not as important as how you eat and a mindful approach is what you’ve been missing.