Your body clock will usually tell you when it’s time for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but what happens when it’s not mealtime and you feel a craving for salty chips or sweet chocolate?
While these cravings may result from hormonal changes or not eating enough at your last meal, you may also be a victim of emotional eating.
According to Jennifer Powers, a registered dietitian with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, emotional eating happens when you eat food to cope with emotions, rather than eating food to satisfy physical hunger.
“Emotional hunger typically comes on abruptly after an emotional trigger causes you to crave ‘comfort foods,’ and leads to eating mindlessly,” says Powers.
One of the biggest culprits of emotional eating is stress.
In 2015, the “Stress in America” survey — conducted by the American Psychological Association — reported that 39 percent of adults reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods in the past month due to stress.
Along with stress, other emotions that drive you to emotionally eat are:
“Eating emotionally from time to time is normal,” says Powers. “There’s a reason that movies show people eating ice cream after a breakup; food can be comforting.”
While there is no cause for alarm with the occasional fast food order after a long, stressful day or going out for a treat to celebrate a milestone, it can become a problem and even be considered an eating disorder when food becomes your only way to cope.
The apple test
“Check in when you find yourself reaching for food,” says Powers. “Ask yourself: Are you really hungry or are you feeling emotional?”
Powers suggests the apple test if you are not sure. When you find yourself craving a candy bar, but you aren’t sure if it’s physical or emotional hunger, ask yourself if you would eat an apple. If the answer is yes, then you are likely physically hungry. If the answer is no, then the craving is likely emotional.
No amount of food will satisfy emotional hunger. “It may feel good in the moment, but the feeling that triggered you to eat will remain, and often guilt sets in when you eat and are not hungry,” says Powers.
Address the cause
It’s important to be mindful and address the root cause of this trigger, and what your body and mind really need. Finding healthy ways to cope with your emotions — without using food — is important.
“If you are feeling sad or lonely, reach out for support. If you are feeling tired, get some rest. If you’re anxious, do some deep breathing,” says Powers.
“Mindful eating is an effective way to curb emotional eating as well,” she says. “Take time to sit down, plate your food, check in with how you feel emotionally and your hunger level, eat slowly without distractions, pause, check in with your fullness level, and reflect.”
If you are struggling with emotional eating, learn more about Sharp Mesa Vista’s outpatient eating disorder programs.