From my personal experience and after several years helping people incorporate healthier eating habits using the mindful eating approach, one of the greatest difficulties is it easy to confuse whether we are feeling hunger or emotions and states are being expressed in the body.
In our head we might be clear that feeling physical hunger is different from feeling anxiety or stress, but the truth is that on many occasions we respond to both experiences in the same way: we eat.
Eating because of psychological or emotional hunger is eating in a response to a very strong urge that does not have the purpose of nourishing the body, but rather comforts, calms, rewards, distracts and regulates negative emotions.
When we stick to a diet that tells us what and how much to eat, we stop paying attention to internal signs of hunger, fullness and satisfaction and only pay attention to the external authority: the diet plan. If we combine this with the fact that often from childhood we are not taught to be present in our unpleasant emotions and we are even taught to reject them, a pattern develops. What ends up happening to us is that after years of dieting we are no longer able to know if what we feel is physical hunger or emotions presenting themselves in the body.
If you recognize yourself as one of the many people who come home and cannot stop snacking until dinner is ready, mindful eating can help you approach that experience with curiosity and without judgment as a first step towards differentiating these physical sensations.
DIFFERENT WAYS TO TELL PHYSICAL HUNGER FROM EMOTIONAL HUNGER
- Where it presents itself
Physical hunger presents itself in the stomach through noises and many different sensations in the body. Physical hunger could also feel like low energy or difficulty concentrating.
On the other hand, when we experience emotional hunger, the stomach and body may not need food or be hungry. But it is true that we might feel some of the same sensations that we feel with physical hunger like a knot in the pit of our stomach, pressure or uneasiness in our lower chest. This is how we confuse physical and emotional hunger.
This is why it is important to learn your physical sensations of fullness and emptiness. They tell us when the body needs nourishment. Exploring these with a gentle curiosity can help us differentiate emotional hunger from physical hunger.
2. Type of food
Another way to differentiate what type of hunger you have focuses on the types of food.
When we are physically hungry, we are more open to a variety of foods such as fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, bread, etc
In contrast, when we feel hungry because our emotions are out of control, we usually crave a particular food, often one with large amounts of sugar, fat or salt. It might be cookies, chocolate, chips, bread or ice cream. These foods have a pleasant-reinforcing effect on our brain and help us calm down or comfort us at that moment.
HOW TO LEARN TO DIFFERENTIATE AND MANAGE YOUR EMOTIONAL HUNGER
1. Close your eyes and try to remember a time when you have really been hungry.
- Where did you feel the hunger?
- What physical sensations did you notice in your stomach?
- And in the rest of your body?
2. Next, pay attention to your stomach and your body at this moment: are you feeling any of those sensations here and now?
3. If possible find a place to sit down by yourself and take ten deep and slow breaths. Sit quietly for a moment, and then ask yourself: Are my stomach and body really hungry, or am I sad, angry, bored, irritated, embarrassed or upset in some other way? What do I really need?
I hope you liked this post and I would love for you to tell me about your experience practicing differentiating physical from emotional hunger.
Mireia Hurtado, Spain