Is it ok to eat for emotional hunger?
How to tell the difference between mental hunger, boredom hunger or physical hunger.
As humans, we can often experience drives toward food for reasons other than hunger. Deciphering whether your body is actually hungry or there is another reason you are turning to food can feel daunting. But it is possible to dive deeper into the sensations you are feeling to have more of an understanding into what your body is asking for.
Learn how to tell the difference between mental hunger, boredom hunger and physical hunger and how to know when you should eat.
What does hunger feel like?
We often think about the physical sensations of hunger such as a grumbling stomach or a feeling of emptiness. But our body has many ways it communicates hunger to us.
Normal hunger sensations also include thinking about food, having food cravings, food smelling good, feeling low in energy, losing focus and an irritable mood (aka hangry!). These mental hunger cues are as normal and valid as the physical sensations of hunger.
Food is a basic need for your body and as such, it has many ways of communicating it is hungry and driving you to seek food.
Is it mental hunger, boredom hunger or actual hunger?
What do you consider actual hunger? Is it only the physical sensations of hunger? Our body communicates hunger in more ways than the physical sensations so you may benefit from broadening your definition of actual hunger to include mental drives toward which are just as valid as physical hunger sensations.
If mental hunger for you feels more like social or emotional drives toward food, you may experience a desire to eat that arises when you see others eating or you may have a strong desire for food to soothe and comfort when you feel stressed, low or other strong emotions.
Boredom hunger might feel like a desire to eat for the taste, pleasure or just something to do. Boredom hunger can sometimes simply be a sign that you are actually hungry and that’s why you have started thinking about food. For some people, food may provide stimulation. This can be more common in neurodiverse people whose brains seek rises in dopamine whether from food or other activities.
Your body uses food for more than just fuel and nutrients so even if your hunger is a sign of nourishment of the mind, that’s always ok as well.
How does food serve us emotionally
Food plays a much bigger role in our lives than simply providing fuel and nutrients. Food is supposed to bring us comfort and joy, it is supposed to connect us socially and culturally and bring back memories from childhood or holidays. It is healthy for food to support many areas of our lives.
In times of stress or low mood, food may serve an important coping tool that brings you safety and comfort in the moment. This is a very normal human experience. The difference between this feeling supportive or a hurtful coping tool is in the feelings it brings up for you and in the other tools you have available to bring yourself into a calmer place during stress.
If turning to food during emotional moments is contributing further stress, guilt or shame, it’s likely not feeling very supportive in that moment. Likewise, if food feels like the end point of every difficult emotion rather than having a range of tools that support different emotions, it may be that you would benefit from diving further into what emotional support you have available.
Having a range of coping tools for emotional moments supports a healthy relationship with food
When should I eat?
It is always ok to eat. We often hear that it is best to wait as long as possible to eat, however delaying eating in response to hunger is more likely to lead to disordered thoughts and behaviours around food such as emotional eating, out of control eating and obsessive food thoughts.
If you are experiencing physical sensations of hunger, it is time to eat. If you’re experiencing mental sensations of hunger, unpack this a bit more. Is your mental hunger just actual hunger? What makes you doubt this compared to your physical hunger cues? Perhaps experiment what happens to your mood, energy, physical sensations and focus when you eat and what happens if you don’t eat?
If you experience a drive toward food based on your emotions, it may be a sign you are hungry or you may be using food as a coping tool. A coping tool is there to support you and food is a valid coping tool. You should never take away a coping tool but rather explore what your emotional triggers are, what other ways you cope and if there is anything else your body needs.
If you find yourself eating out of boredom, what’s your body looking for in that moment? Have you eaten regularly in the day? Is there a chance you are hungry? Are you looking for stimulation through food and does anything else provide that for you? It’s still ok to eat but you are also allowed to learn more about your experiences.
Getting back in touch with your body
There’s no right or wrong way to eat and food is supposed to serve a much wider role in our life than just fuel and nutrients. Eating can feel more comfortable if you are attuned to the eating experience and aware of what your body needs in the moment.
Rather than trying to take food away or second guessing your hunger, see if you can give yourself permission to eat without guilt, bring awareness to the eating experience and explore how your body feels and if there is anything that it needs.
If you are looking for a guided approach to explore how food is serving you, check out Overcoming Emotional Eating. A self paced, step-by-step approach to learn why you turn to food and find the tools to cope during emotional moments.
Written by Emma Townsin, Registered Dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor
Emma is the founder of Food Life Freedom and the host of the Food & Life Freedom Podcast. For personalised support to stop stressing over health and heal your relationship with food and your body, learn how you can fast track your way food and life freedom.
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