Honing in on Hunger

Have you ever walked to the cabinet pantry to pull out a bag of potato chips, simply from the persistent thoughts of how amazing the taste of honey BBQ flavor, and the sound of crunch after every bite of chips would be? Let’s say, you rushed to the pantry to grab a bag of chips and devoured the entire bag in minutes, because you wanted it, you had to have it! But after eating the entire bag of chips, you realized “Why did I eat that? I feel ashamed. I’m a terrible person. I need to go on a diet tomorrow” and the tortuous self-inflictions of guilt, and atonements to eat better, preoccupy your mind for the rest of the day.Moreover, to urgently want a particular food out of the blue is an example of cravings. Craving is a powerful desire for something, in which the example above denotes a craving for BBQ flavored potato chips. When a person unexpectedly feels a sudden crave for a specific food, this is often called emotional hunger. Emotional hunger is different from physical hunger. Emotional hunger often causes individuals to eat for comfort and is triggered by negative or strong anxious feelings such as stress, sadness, frustration, guilt, jealously, celebration, and etc. When we are unaware of emotional hunger, it may lead to overeating and binging on certain foods - both conducive to unwanted weight gain. Emotional hunger is characterized by common traits such as the sudden onset of cravings for a particular food, the urgency to eat right away, to eat when paired with upsetting emotion, the involvement of absent minded eating, the unwillingness to stop eating in response to fullness, and the feeling of guilt after eating. Just this past week, David Orozco experienced a client with emotional hunger. In their session the client mentioned how she couldn’t stop this craving for sweets and chocolate. She mentioned that she had a long day at work, traveling a lot, and being away from her husband and family, not to mention the stress of deadlines, customer complaints, and a falling out with another employee. The only thing she thought about was how much chocolate is the cure all to a long day at work… but disappointingly, chocolate was nowhere to be found. So David’s client talks about how she drove to the closest convenient store to buy a bag of chocolate, while thinking, “I need that chocolate – must have it now.” After buying a bag of chocolate, she replays the emotional thoughts from work, and absent-mindedly munches away half the bag of chocolate. And despite the feelings of fullness, and stomach discomfort from the rush of sugar, the client continues to eat the chocolate until all the pieces are gone. Consequently, she mentioned how she felt extreme guilt for overeating, how difficult it is for her to control those cravings, when consequently it’s the situations in her day that need to be addressed as well. This is an example of emotional hunger – when someone eats for pleasure, but paradoxically, feels guilt afterwards from eating too much. However, there are several differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger. In contrast, physical hunger is gradual, meaning sensations in your stomach progressively intensify starting with a rumble to a growl an hour later. Physical hunger is an actual timed response of the emptiness of food in the stomach. Thereby, physical hunger is based in the stomach, and recognizable by stomach sensations such as emptiness, gnawing, and even abdominal pain. When physical hunger is stimulated, you have more food preferences and alternative choices, opposed to craving a specific food. Physical hunger occurs out of physical needs, so after 4-5 hours of fasting, you may experience light-headedness or weakness from being overly hungry. In addition, physical hunger stems from the desire to fuel and nourish the body, but once that intention is fulfilled, a person is likely to stop eating when satiated. On the contrary, when someone is experiencing emotional hunger, especially after skipping a meal or going longer than 5 hours without eating, the mind tends to override the physiological signals and enhances the desires, cravings, and compulsion to eat, thus the inability to fill that void and then the feelings of guilt afterward. To hone in on hunger means to know when you feel full, to embrace the urge to eat at that very moment, to ask yourself “Am I hungry?” It also means to be present and know if you are eating emotionally or in response to stress, and to understand what you are eating and why. Once someone is aware and present, differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger are discernible. The chances of overeating is reduced, weight gain is less likely to occur, and food is enjoyable from the time you eat it to hours after you eat it; this because you will no longer beat yourself up for habits of uncontrolled overeating. Know your hunger. Feed your body for nourishment, and not only for emotional comfort. These are just a few principles from The Intuitive Eating Guidelines. To learn more, visit our program Shape Healthy, and find out how you can manage your health and wellness from steps as simple as honing in on hunger.