Are You Eating Because You're Hungry or Emotional?

From the WebMD Archives

Food provides our bodies with fuel, but that isn't the only reason you might eat. For many people, emotions play a strong role. For example, you might eat because you are:

  • Happy (birthday cake!)
  • Sad (who hasn't indulged in ice cream after a bad day?)
  • Stressed (that 3 p.m. office chocolate break)

Eating for emotional reasons often leads to overeating, since you weren't hungry in the first place.

An occasional binge isn’t a serious problem. If it happens all the time, you might have binge eating disorder.

Signs That You’re Eating Because of Emotions

Some clues that your desire to eat is purely emotional are:

  • Something stressful happens, and you immediately want to eat. True hunger isn't affected by things like getting into a fight with your spouse or having a bad day at work.
  • An overwhelming urge to eat comes on suddenly. Real, physical hunger builds up slowly. You shouldn't go from "fine" to "starving" in an instant.
  • You only desire one particular food. When you're hungry, you might have a preference (you're in the mood for a burger, for example) but you know other options would be OK. If you'd only be satisfied by chips or ice cream, assume the urge to eat is emotional.

Still not sure if your desire to soothe your feelings with food has crossed a dangerous line? Here are some misconceptions about emotional eating and binge eating disorder.

Myth No. 1: Eating because you're upset or anxious means you have binge eating disorder.

It's true that people who binge often do so to numb emotions such as upsetting, painful, or sad feelings. But most people who turn to food because of how they're feeling do not have binge eating disorder. "We all have our comfort foods," says Randy Flanery, PhD, program director for Webster Wellness Professionals in St. Louis, MO.

If you binge, you eat much more than others would in similar situations. Those with this disorder also feel like they have no control over their eating during a binge. They usually feel very upset, guilty, or shameful about their eating. If that sounds like you, see a mental health expert for proper diagnosis and treatment.

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Myth No. 2: Eating a lot of food in one sitting means you have binge eating disorder.

Eating a significant amount of food in a short amount of time is, indeed, defined as a binge. But you can binge from time to time and not have a disorder. "A lot of people -- some estimates say 80% of people -- binge occasionally. Just think about Thanksgiving," says Russell Marx, MD, chief science officer for the National Eating Disorders Association. Everyone indulges every now and then, especially at the holidays. But if you do it all the time, especially if you eat alone because you’re embarrassed about it, see a doctor. These are signs of binge eating disorder.

Myth No. 3: People with binge eating disorder overeat because they're too focused on food.

Actually, it's often the reverse: People who binge tend to not focus enough on what they're eating. They don't realize how much they've eaten until after they've finished. "Many times they're eating almost automatically without paying much attention," Flanery says. "Then later, they stop and say, 'Oh my gosh, what am I doing?'"

If you’re worried about your eating habits, keep a journal. Write down in detail how you feel before, during, and after a meal. Note what you eat and how much you ate. This can help you become more mindful about your eating.

Another tip: "Don't watch TV or read a book while you're eating. Instead, prepare your food, sit at a table, and really savor the flavors and aromas," Flanery says.

Myth No. 4: You should wait until you feel your stomach growling to eat.

Belly growling is a sign of physical hunger. But for a lot of people, the body doesn’t signal it is time to eat until many, many hours after the last meal. "A rumbling stomach can mean that it's been too long since you last ate, which makes you more vulnerable to overeating," Flanery says. It also makes you more likely to choose unhealthy foods, like those with a lot of sugar, fat, and salt.

If you are prone to binges, eating healthy food at regular mealtimes (scheduled every 3 to 4 hours) is usually a good idea. Following a schedule removes some of the decision-making (Am I really hungry?) that can be stressful, Flanery says.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on January 20, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Timothy Brewerton, MD, executive medical director, The Hearth Center for Eating Disorders, Columbia, SC; clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Medical University of South Carolina.

Canyon Ranch: "Is It Emotional Eating or True Hunger?"

Randy Flanery, PhD, director, Webster Wellness Professionals, St. Louis, MO; adjunct associate professor of family medicine, St. Louis University School of Medicine.

Russell Marx, MD, chief science officer, National Eating Disorders Association.

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