Want Fries With That Mood?

(Photo: PerantauSepiLodge)

Spaghetti with tomato loss. Big Mac with a large order of sighs. A balonely and cheese sandwich on rye - extra mayo. Chicken bored 'n bleu. Stir cry. Fish and Dips. Angers and mash (UK and Python fans only).

Are you finding that you're using food for something more than nutrition lately? Or maybe it's not really a new phenomenon with you. Maybe you were rewarded/comforted/bribed/motivated with food as a kid and it has morphed into your current diet and mindset. Maybe it's not so much of a stretch for you to equate food with love and comfort. So it shouldn't come as a big surprise that sometimes we find ourselves using food as a coping device for emotions we're not ready to handle and have gotten into a bad habit of suppressing with food. Welcome to the world of emotional eating - population: big and getting bigger.

So how can you tell if your hunger is emotional and not physical? There are some signs that can help make the distinction for you.

- Emotional hunger comes on very suddenly whereas physical hunger is a more gradual build.

- When it's an emotional craving, it is generally for a very specific food. With physical hunger, your range of options is broader - you're just looking to quell the hunger but are not so specific with what.

- Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be sated immediately. It stands in front of the microwave and screams, "HURRY UP!!" Physical hunger says, "Ummm..yeah, I could eat" and then proceeds in an orderly fashion to fix something up.

- Feeling full is never a sign to stop when eating emotionally. You will just barrel right through that stop sign and keep punching that gas pedal. If you're physically hungry, you'll come to a full and complete stop when full.

- Emotional hunger starts from the "neck up" - it's your mouth and mind that are dictating what you eat. Physical hunger relies on the stomach to tell you when to eat.

- Eating emotionally is tied in with, well, an emotion - your boss was a real jerk today, you fought with your spouse, your neighbor's dog is barking non-stop. Physical hunger is tied in with a physical need to nourish the body.

- Automatic, compulsive eating is emotional. If you're eating without thinking, your emotions are running the show. Physical feeding is more deliberate and thoughtful.

- And when all is said and done (or eaten and drunk), there will be guilt and shame after having eaten emotionally. Sure, there's that itch that's been scratched right away but then we experience real negative emotions for having overdone it - again. Physical hunger recognizes that you're eating to survive and as such, there are no feelings of shame or guilt. Eating is as necessary as sleeping and breathing.

Even the most psychologically evolved of us can lapse into eating emotionally once in a while but if eating turns out to be your main coping device, you could be headed for trouble; especially when the foods tend to be more of the unhealthy variety. I can personally attest to never having overeaten carrots or kale. In addition, eating when it is non-physically necessary can also add up to a lot of excess calories consumed which in turn lead to...anyone? Anyone? Bueller?...becoming overweight.

The good news is that you can do something about curbing this feeling feeding frenzy. I used to visit a nutritionist until my health insurance changed and it wasn't covered anymore. Apparently this insurance company's take was that it was better for me (and more cost effective to them) to continue on cholesterol reducing statins rather than pursuing a preventive solution to my problem, but I digress. The nutritionist suggested that when the impulse to eat arose suddenly (a sign of emotion-driven hunger) I should ask myself whether or not I physically felt hungry. Was my stomach growling? Had it been hours since my last meal? If the answer was no, she told me to avoid food for ten minutes, to "sit with the emotions" and try to identify what was really driving this hunger. She also advised that the emotions may not be readily available right away, which I found to be true, but that they were there. It took a lot of sitting still and really thinking about things until the emotions slowly came to the surface. Once I could recognize the underlying emotions, I was better able to short-circuit the unnecessary grazing to help soothe those emotions and learn to deal with them head-on.

She also suggested that once I recognized the onset of emotional hunger, I should try to distract myself with another activity like reading, knitting, talking on the phone, etc. (Cooking or baking is not recommended, Forrest.) Another idea was to keep a journal to record my hunger and the related emotions to figure out what, or who, was behind this urge. Identifying and avoiding emotional triggers can be very helpful in defeating emotional eating.

Stop letting the clock dictate when you're hungry was another smart tip from my nutritionist. If the clock says noon but you're not hungry yet, don't force the issue. Eat when you start to get a little hungry - whether that's before or after The Stated Meal Time. She cautioned against letting the hunger get too far ahead of me, though, in which case I might start tearing apart the kitchen like a ravenous dog, consuming vast quantities of food and Alpo. Planning meals ahead of time can help diffuse the stress of being hungry and clueless.

There's also a terrific author by the name of Geneen Roth who has written extensively about emotional eating with a real "been there, done that" approach should you want to explore the emotional connection to food more extensively. She also writes a monthly column for Good Housekeeping magazine.

How much of the time do you think your hunger is being driven by emotion? And what, if anything, are you doing to correct that?

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