physical hunger vs. emotional hunger
Learning your body’s cues means learning how to trust your body.
In physical hunger, your biology, the complex interaction between your digestive system, endocrine system, and brain is telling you to replenish with nutrients. This is a gradual signal like your stomach growling, low energy and weakness, and irritability, and difficult concentrating.
Emotional hunger is usually directed from an emotional need like boredom, sadness, or loneliness. The heart can feel achy or empty due to unfulfilled emotional or spiritual needs. Rather than acknowledging and working through our challenges, we try to fill the void with food and create cravings for food that bring us back to that comfort state. Because these foods are typically unhealthy and trigger “feel good” sensations, people often feel guilt and shame after eating them.
Often, people confuse other signals in the body for physical hunger. Have you ever experienced any of these?
Sometimes, especially if we’re feeling irritated or stressed, we want to chew our frustrations away. Our bodies are not calling for food, but we put it in our mouths as an attempt to relieve anxiety.
We see or smell something that looks so delicious that our mouths start to water. Sometimes just thinking about a food brings on a craving for it. We desire to taste the food, but really aren’t physically hungry.
We look at the clock and think we have to eat a certain amount of food because “it’s time”, even if we don’t feel like eating.
Sometimes we confuse the sluggishness of dehydration with actual hunger. The body is calling for fluids, not food.
When we sense that our energy levels are low, some of us automatically think that if we eat something, we’ll feel better. However, if we’ve been working extra hard and/or haven’t been getting enough sleep, our bodies are calling for rest, not food.
Tips to get started:
Learn your physical sensations of hunger and fullness. Hunger and fullness is regulated by the hypothalamus in the brain. When your body has had enough food to satisfy its needs, signals are sent to the hypothalamus, registering fullness (also called satiety). When we are in tune to our bodies, we recognize when it’s time to stop eating. The stomach feels comfortable, and satisfied — not stuffed. We soon begin to feel calmer, more alert and energized.
It takes approximately 20 minutes for fullness signals to transmit from the stomach back to the brain. So, if you eat too fast and aren’t paying attention, it’s easy to override this system and eat more than what the body is calling for.
Pay attention. Take a moment to sit quietly and take a few deep breaths. to what may feel like emptiness. Ask yourself “what do I need?” “what would feel good?” “What is causing this pain?”“What do I need to say?”It could be hot bath, essential oils, singing, meditation, dance, taking a nap, buying yourself flowers.
Start loving yourself NOW. Give yourself that spa treatment, go on a vacation, create boundaries at work. This means living in the present and working with your body not against your body. Give yourself compassion.
Enjoy the occasional sweet treat or salty snack. Allowing yourself to “unhealthy” foods every once in a while prevents restrictive dieting, which can lead to binge eating or other eating disorders.
Enjoy your favorite foods. Recreate nourishing versions of your traditional comfort foods. Fries? How about baking sweet potato fries with spices. Want that burger? Use lean sustainably raised grass-fed beef, tomatoes, fermented pickles, and wrap it up in butter lettuce.
Set up for success. Have a meal plan and make grocery shopping fun by learning about new foods and how to eat them. Collect all your recipes and choose 1 or 2 to make for the week.
If you are still challenged there may be medical explanations such as medications that are interfering with appetite. If you know that painful memories or situations are at the root of emotional eat, it is important to seek guidance to overcome these issues with a therapist.