by Lindsey Woodkey
We have all done it. Our last meal was only an hour ago. Our stomach is content, but our brain is not. With no physical hunger present, we reach into the cupboard for our favorite comfort item and begin to munch away. Ten minutes later we feel guilty and are left to wonder why we did not practice self-control. Now, not only are we guilty about the massive amount of extra calories we just consumed, but the deep down reason we went to the kitchen in the first place still exists and is accompanied by a belly ache.
There are many reasons why we eat, the most obvious being physical hunger. Physical hunger is caused by the hormone ghrelin, which is the body’s way of telling our brains it is time to eat. Leptin is the hormone released when we are full and our body has received the nutrients it needs. As young children, these hormones are well regulated and perform their jobs well. As we get older, we learn to ignore these signals and rely more on social cues, the clock, or our emotional state. This is where we get into trouble.
Beyond physical hunger we have emotional, stress and boredom eating. With each of these, we seek out food to fill a void, to occupy our mind, or to numb our pain. Let me tell you this, it may work in the short term (the small period of time in which you are consuming the food and serotonin, the “feel good” hormone, is being released), but if you look at the bigger picture, it will only make things worse.
We eat when we are happy; we eat when we are sad. Society has taught us to both celebrate and grieve with food. Deep down, there is an emotional connection with food. Feeling lonely? You will most likely reach for an item that has given you comfort (think mom’s macaroni and cheese or grandma’s apple pie). Going through a break up? You may try to numb the pain by consuming foods that calm or soothe you. If stress is your trigger, you will tend to reach for items that are high in sugar, fat and salt. This is in response to the stress hormone cortisol. With boredom eating, we tend to consume items that keep our hands and mouths busy (think nuts, chips, or other small, packaged items). These take our minds off any feelings of worthlessness or dissatisfaction that we are experiencing. The problem is, with any of these scenarios, we hardly ever stop at just a few.
So how can you recognize if your hunger is physical or linked to emotions, stress or boredom? Here are a few signs that your hunger is from another source:
- You sense hunger instantly, and feel the need to satisfy it right then and there (In fact, actual physical hunger develops over time and intensifies as more time passes).
- You crave very specific comfort foods that are often rich and indulgent (physical hunger can be satisfied with a variety of options).
- Your stomach is full, but you are still feeling hungry (meaning you’re physically satisfied, but still feeling a void).
- After you eat, you feel guilty, powerless and ashamed.
Now that you know how to identify eating cues that are not related to physical hunger, how can you stop them? First, identify what—other than physical hunger– is triggering your eating. Then, consider keeping a journal to record your feelings. Find other ways to fill that void. Go for a walk, paint your nails, call a friend or family member, play with your pets, or put on your favorite song/movie. These all bring feelings of joy and comfort. Make sure to wait at least 10 minutes before giving in to a craving. I call it the “rule of ten”. Usually, after ten minutes, that instant “I need _____ now” feeling is gone and so is the “hunger.” Next, accept that we all feel stressed, sad and lonely at times. This is normal. However, what you can control is how you react. Feeling powerless over your emotions will cause you to reach for food, while accepting and dealing with them will keep your willpower strong. Lastly, ensure that you are making healthy life choices by exercising regularly, fueling your body properly, sleeping enough, and developing positive, supportive relationships.
The take away message? Food won’t fill any void. It will not cure depression, it won’t bring back a lost family member, nor will it make your more satisfied with your life. A junk food binge will actually have the opposite effect. See food as what it is: fuel for your body. Seek comfort, love, and acceptance from somewhere other than the bag of chips. Your psyche, self-confidence and waistline depend upon it.
Lindsey Woodkey of Ellensburg is a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor with bachelors’ degrees in exercise science and nutrition from Central Washington University.