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What Kind of Hunger Is Driving You to Eat? Part 3: Emotional Eating

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

In our previous posts, we delved into how the senses drive hunger as well as how the body cues you that it needs food. In our final part of this three-part series on how different hungers drive you to eat, we are going to talk about two of the most difficult components of driving forces for eating: the mind and the heart.

Mind Hunger

Our brains are so powerful!!! They can convince us to eat anything – or not eat something.

Mind hunger incorporates the thoughts of should eat and shouldn’t eat, as well as whether you deserve a certain food. This food is good, this food is bad. I deserve this cupcake because I worked out this morning. Cupcakes are bad for me; I should feel guilty for eating it. These are examples of some of the ways that the mind guides us on how and when to eat.

Diet trends fall into this category as well: Eggs used to be bad to eat but now they are good. Carbs are bad for you. Fat is bad….wait it is good for you? If I eat ice cream, I will skip dinner to make up for it.

What other examples can you think of that you do on a regular basis?

Our minds can also convince us to eat more food because it tastes good or looks good, all of the sensory hunger we discussed in the first article in our series. The mind can also tell us to eat more food because it’s our last chance to do so. This is common in diet culture, where someone has one last meal before starting a diet and over-indulges. Or maybe you are on vacation and it is your last time to have a certain local dish, so you eat it even if you aren’t that hungry.

Letting your mind rule can be okay, depending on the situation. However, it is important to be aware of the ways in which the mind guides your relationship with food and eating behavior. This can help you to learn to break certain behaviors that are not serving your overall health, which may take time and the support of a professional.

The goal is to learn when the mind is ruling you and not to let it. Or, from time to time, to let the mind rule you when you feel it is an appropriate occasion. To recognize what is going on and making the conscious decision to go with it. To gain the awareness to go, “you know what, I’m not actually that hungry, but my eyes want this delicious looking cookie and that is making my head want it. My mind is saying I deserve it because I finished my work and my boss loved it. And I am making the choice to indulge in this cookie and enjoy it and not feeling guilty about it.”

Then, it is important to take the time and eat the cookie or whatever food it is you want in a way where you enjoy it and truly savor it and take pleasure of every bite – and stop when you feel satisfied, even if it is before you eat the whole cookie. This helps to satisfy all of your hungers so that you do not end up craving something similar down the line because you indulged but did not satisfy.

Of course, the scenario I just discussed is still MIND HUNGER! Catch 22, right? But, it is a mind hunger of which you are aware rather than an unconscious mind hunger driving you and creating unhealthy eating behaviors or a relationship with food that may not best serve your overall health goals.

With mind hunger, it is key to start to listen to how you are telling yourself what you should and shouldn’t eat. What foods make you feel guilty…and when does this end up triggering a binge? Courses such as mindful eating and intuitive eating can help with this, as can work with a therapist and/or a nutritionist.

Heart Hunger

Heart hunger is another troublesome hunger that often requires a lot of work, often with a therapist, to come to terms with it.

Part of heart hunger is what we call emotional eating, but it is more than that. It is also nostalgia eating. It is going home and eating food served by a parent, grandparent, or other family member and feeling it tastes way better than the way you cook it. It’s the desire to eat a specific food at a certain restaurant because that is where you ate all the time as a child, while in college, during your first tough days at work, with your lover, or some other situation in life.

It is also eating when you feel stressed, anxious, lonely, sad, depressed, excited, happy, celebratory, list any other emotion here. Often, it is reaching for comfort foods or reward foods.

Emotional eating/heart hunger can be the hardest to break through. It takes a lot of work towards becoming aware of it and learning how to feed it but in healthier ways. I don’t mean healthy in terms of nutrition, I mean healthy in terms of not cultivating a negative relationship with food, indulging in bad coping mechanisms, binging on foods, or developing disordered eating patterns.

One of the best ways to satisfy heart hunger is to allow yourself to indulge. As hard as it sounds, nourish this heart hunger and desire for these pleasure foods by sitting down and actually enjoying it – guilt-free.

For example, let’s say that ice cream is your comfort or reward food, but you never let yourself eat it or you feel guilty whenever you do. After working through mindful eating and other exercises, you can get to a point where can you indulge in consuming your favorite ice cream (as long as you do not physically react or there is some other health reason to avoid it). You get the flavor you want, the brand you want with no worry about calories, fat, etc. Then, you sit and take a bite, enjoying every sensation of it. You take your time and look at the ice cream, smell it, feel it in your mouth, enjoy the taste and feel of it. Just sit there, present in the moment and enjoy it, honoring the feelings and reasons for wanting to eat it.

When you do indulge, it is key to do so when you are hungry enough so you do not end up feeling overstuffed or sick from eating too much. Because, ending with that overstuffed feeling can detract from the overall experience, and the point is to have a positive experience that satisfies what you are looking to address.

For many, especially those with disordered eating, eating disorders, or an unhealthy relationship with food, this takes a lot of work to get to this point to do this. Often, before you can do this exercise, you first have to unpack the feelings and thoughts behind these comfort or reward foods to separate the emotion and the reward response from it. It also helps to recognize the other types of hunger. You also may need more training in mindful eating itself, where you slow down and eat without distractions, focusing on the process of eating.

Another important aspect of learning your heart hunger is becoming aware of what the emotions are that you relate with food – and may even satisfy with food. Is it loneliness, rewarding yourself, grief, anxiety, sadness, or something else? Then, find different ways to deal with those. Reach out to a friend, play with someone, listen to music, indulge in your hobby, etc.

Depending on the situation, you may need to work with a counselor or therapist to recognize the underlying emotions, work through them, and learn healthier coping mechanisms.

Bringing It All Together: What Do You Do?

Throughout these three articles, we have discussed the seven main hunger types that Bays talks about in her book, but there are more than have been added by others. For example, some people add mindless or habitual hunger to the mix, although this falls a bit under the mind hunger. This is when you graze all day because food is there and you don’t even realize you are eating it. Or you eat popcorn at the theater just because you are there. Maybe you order the same meal, with appetizer and dessert, every time you go to your favorite restaurant and eat all of it, paying no attention to how hungry you are or if it is really as tasty as you remember.

An article published by Health had additional categories or names for some of these hungers: real hunger, TV hunger, bored hunger, hangry hunger, afternoon slump hunger, stress hunger, PMS hunger, celebration hunger. Many of these fit into the other categories. There’s also tired hunger or thirsty hunger.

No matter what you call it, ultimately, the solution is to recognize the underlying reason driving you to eat. Then, learn to be more mindful and eat to satisfy your true hunger, and learn ways to satisfy the rest.

So, let’s bring all of what we’ve learned in these three articles together. What do you do?

In the early stages of incorporating mindful eating, especially in terms of the types of hunger, what you want to do is when you feel the desire to eat something, become aware of who the leader is. Look into the different areas. Is it your senses? Does something just look good, smell good, etc. Is your mind telling you to eat something – or not eat it? Maybe it’s your emotions. Perhaps your stomach is growling or you are in the midst of a hangry episode.

So what actions can help you to do this? A simple first step is to take a deep breath and go through the seven types of hunger. Ask yourself how are you feeling with each and give yourself a score on a 1-5 scale and mark down each one (or make a mental note). Then, see what scores the highest. It may be more than one. This alerts you to what is triggering the hunger.

For now, that may be enough. When you are ready, you can start to make a conscious decision whether to indulge in eating the food or whether you should wait for the next time based on what you learn when you evaluate your reasons for wanting to eat.

So, awareness, taking a beat (breathe), and learning to be curious and acknowledge what is going on in the body so that your mind and body talk to each other more, giving you better answers when you do try to determine why you are feeling hungry, whether you are actually hungry, if you have room for more food, and whether something actually IS appetizing to you, or the ads are just really good. It takes a conscious effort to do this in the beginning, but over time with practice, it can become a much easier skill that happens more naturally.

There are more steps to take beyond this awareness exercise, and it can take time to integrate mindful eating into your life.

If you want to see how this could feel, try the popular mindful eating raisin exercise. It takes you through really slowing down and eating a simple food while acknowledging all the senses and how it makes you feel, eating without any distractions. There are many other exercises out there as well that can aid you in learning more.

If you want to work on mindful eating and its close neighbor intuitive eating more on your own, here are some great resources:

This is hard work. It may seem simple, but that does not make it easy to do. It can take months or even years to become really good at this and learning to eat based on what your body is telling you, rather than other cues. But ultimately it can help you have a healthier relationship with food that includes satisfying ALL of these hungers but doing so in a way that is appropriate AND actually satisfies, rather than keeping you hungry for things, leading to more and more cravings. You can start the journey today and take small steps until you make it to your ultimate goal.

Remember, it is not about saying you should or shouldn’t eat certain foods – remember, that is the mind telling you. It is about learning to nourish your body, mind, and spirit with food and becoming more aware of your relationship with food and eating behaviors. It is also about being in the moment when you eat so that you enjoy it and are aware of the body cues telling you when enough is enough.

This means sometimes, you consume pleasure foods that nourish your inner spirit and you also eat nutrient-dense, physically nourishing foods. But you do so at the appropriate-for-you times and amounts so that you are not left feeling sick, over-fed, guilty, or in an otherwise negative state.

Instead, when you eat your pleasure foods, you truly get pleasure from eating them. And, depending on your ultimate health goals, you focus on eating more nutrient-dense foods the rest of the time to nourish your physical and mental health.

For many, this journey to becoming more mindful and in tune with hunger cues and satiety is difficult and requires a guide on the journey. If you would like help, then book a 30-minute discovery call to see if Sunshine Nutrition & Wellness is the right fit for you.

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