Let's face it: For most of us, food is much more than merely fuel for our bodies. From grandma's apple pie to mac and cheese we enjoyed as a child to chocolate mousse shared with a significant other, food can evoke memories and emotions, particularly feelings of comfort or love.
But there's a big difference between nurturing yourself from time to time with comfort food and using food to insulate you from your feelings and emotions, which can undermine attempts to shed pounds and maintain a healthy body. When eating becomes a method of self-medicating -- or numbing yourself to feelings -- emotional eating crosses over into the realm of concern. Emotional eating is reaching for food to quell feelings, rather than hunger. Over the years, I've learned that understanding and addressing the emotional aspects of overeating and weight management are just as important as nutrition and exercise.
While the eating plan I share with my clients is simple, following it can be a challenge if you've fallen out of touch with your body's hunger cues and developed bad habits or an unhealthy routine. Emotional eating doesn't help either.
[See: How to Stop Emotional Eating.]
Identifying Emotional Versus Physical Hunger
Stress, anxiety, loneliness and fatigue are common triggers for emotional eaters, particularly women. If one of your happiest moments growing up with your six siblings was sitting at the kitchen table eating mom's spaghetti with tomato sauce, you may crave pasta when you're feeling lonely or blue.
But differentiating physical hunger and emotional hunger can be difficult, especially if you've spent your life stuffing your emotions by reaching for food. So here are some key differences to keep in mind that will help in recognizing emotional eating:
-- Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. Physical hunger typically comes on gradually, and you may have physical signs like your stomach growling.
-- Emotional hunger craves specific -- and in most cases, unhealthful -- foods. When you're physically hungry, almost anything will do, including healthful foods.
-- Emotional hunger results in mindless eating. Did you just down a pint of ice cream before bed without realizing or enjoying it? Polished off a sleeve of cookies in front of the television after work? Inhaled a drive-thru burger while crawling home in rush-hour traffic? These are most likely examples of emotional eating.
-- Emotional hunger is never satiated. You want more and more until you're stuffed -- or find yourself in a "carb coma," slumping after eating too much.
-- Emotional hunger has repercussions. These include guilt, shame and regret, to name a few. Physical hunger never leaves you feeling badly about yourself.
While most of us at one time or another during our lives have eaten food for reasons other than being hungry, some grapple with emotional eating much more than others. If you feel that you might be an emotional eater, you're not alone. Experts say as much as 75 percent of overeating may be in response to emotions, rather than to satiate physical hunger.
Many people, particularly those who've struggled on and off with dieting most of their lives, have disconnected from their bodies, learning to ignore signs of hunger and the cues that signal fullness. Without mindfulness -- awareness of what you're feeling both physically and emotionally -- emotional eating can become a knee-jerk reaction to the onset of uncomfortable feelings.
Get In Touch With Your Feelings
The first step in establishing a healthy relationship with food is to reconnect with your body and emotions. Understand, though, that it takes at least a month to create a new habit. And if emotional eating has been a longstanding habit, you won't be able to change it overnight. Be kind and patient with yourself.
Start to notice how you feel when you reach for food. Are you using food to cope, going to the fridge when you're angry or upset? Acknowledge your feelings and take a detour. Ask yourself: What's going on? What is this emotion I'm feeling? Then find a different way of dealing with it.
One thing you can do if you are feeling bad -- but can't identify the exact emotion -- is to merely be aware of the fact that you're feeling bad. Say aloud, "I'm feeling really bad right now," and try to quantify how bad you're feeling on a scale of 1 to 10.
Also, determine your "feeling bad" thresholds. For example, if your "bad" rates a 5 or higher, you may need to call a friend. A lower level may warrant you working it out on your own by going for a walk or meditating. Do something that will make you feel better, not worse.
Affirm Your Values
Researchers believe that reflecting on values can serve as a buffer to the stress and uncertainty that lead to emotional eating and help in maintaining self-control in difficult situations. One study found that when women who were unhappy with their weight completed a one-time, 15-minute writing exercise about an important personal issue, they went on to lose 3-plus pounds, on average, over approximately three months. By comparison, those who wrote about an unimportant topic gained an average of 3 pounds.
So pull out your food journal, set the timer and write freely about what's important to you. Write as though no one else will read it. Come clean about what's bugging you. Your words may surprise but enlighten you.
Follow these steps to take note of what you're feeling and deal with emotional eating:
1. If you have the urge to eat, pay attention to your feelings. 2. Before you reach for food ask yourself: Have I missed a meal? Have I eaten my snack? Am I really hungry?
3. If you have eaten on schedule, and you determine this urge could be emotional eating, acknowledge that you may have gotten into a habit of trying to fix your troubles with food. Don't panic. You're not alone.
4. Try, for just 10 minutes, to deal with your urge with something other than food. Consider these alternatives instead:
-- Go for a walk.
-- Breathe deeply.
-- Pray or meditate.
-- Call a friend.
-- Measure your hunger cues
-- Write in your journal.
-- Do something to feel good about yourself. For example, take a bath, do your nails or make that household repair you've been putting off. Shoot some hoops or get a haircut.
Our emotional states can change minute by minute or hour to hour. If you still have a craving or urge after 10 or 15 minutes, go through the process again. Many times the urge or craving will pass. If you are still really hungry, eat something healthful that you will feel good -- not guilty -- about.
[See: How to Break 7 Unhealthy Habits.]
You can be diligent with your food intake and journaling, and perform like an athlete at the gym. But if you do not acknowledge, assess and deal with any underlying emotional issues that contribute to overeating, any weight you lose will come back. I guarantee it.
Cheryl Forberg RD is a James Beard award-winning chef, New York Times bestselling author and one of the nation's leading advisors on health and nutrition. As chef and nutritionist for TV's "The Biggest Loser," she helped overweight contestants transform their bodies, health and, ultimately, their lives. Two of her books have received U.S. News & World Report's ranking of No. 1 eating plan for diabetes and No. 2 eating plan for weight loss. Her latest book, "A Small Guide to Losing Big" (Flavor First Printing) shares her successful tips for cooking, shopping and menu planning. She lives in Napa, California with her husband, six chickens and two dogs.