Hunger is a basic sensation that all creatures feel and respond to with the appropriate action: to eat. Hunger stems from the very basic idea of stimulus and response as well as the pain principle. The body realizes that there is a lack of nutrients caused by an empty stomach. The body then releases chemicals that inflicts an uncomfortable feeling of emptiness, weakness, and desire to eat (called appetite). The body searches for food to stop this discomfort. This then additionally becomes motivation – a call to action.
So hunger is already very complicated, even in the state of nature. Operating on biology, chemistry, motivation, the pain principle, and the most basic behavioral psychology of stimulus and response. This is important to understand. For a more thorough explanation, click here.
The pain principle – we don’t like feeling pain. It is a natural self preservation tool used to survive in the state of nature. Hunger pangs, terrible contractions of discomfort which begin 12-24 hours after not eating, can be so painful that it is difficult to concentrate on anything else. Add to this state the decreased level of blood sugar and general feeling of lightheadedness and anxiety, and hunger can be almost unbearable. Most people living in developed countries rarely feel real hunger pangs because they are able to eat at normal intervals – every 3-4 hours or so. However, the biological response is still rampant, and once the first sign of discomfort hits, many people instinctively race to stop the pain.
Motivation – The most basic ideas of motivation stems from the pain and pleasure principles. There are two types of motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic is when we are motivated by external things, like a piece of cake, when then stirs a biological response. Intrinsic motivation is internal, and could be anything from a thought or a memory that triggers the same biological response. Motivation is the desire to act to accomplish a goal or fulfill a need, such as eating or sleeping
Behavioral psychology – the most basic theories of behavioral psychology stem from the stimulus and response theory. A stimulus is noticed, a response follows due to that stimulus. The stimulus could be anything – a rabbit sees movement in the bushes, and flees to escape a preconceived notion of danger. the rabbit knew to flee because last time she saw movement in the bushes, a snake came out and lunged at her. The fear response kicked in from seeing the stimulus and caused her to flee. Now the rabbit knows that whenever she sees movement in the bushes, that she must run to avoid getting eaten. In humans this could transfer over to almost anything. The alarm clock makes an annoying buzzer sound, you shut it off and get out of bed. The commercial shows a delicious looking cheeseburger, you decide to buy from that restaurant that night.
What does this have to do with emotional eating? Everything.
When we eat, it is meant to fulfill a need. In nature, this need is strictly biological. We eat to stop the hunger pangs, and we eat to gain nutrition and to feel satiated. As a complex society, hunger means something completely different. We eat because we’re hungry, yes, but we eat for other reasons, too. We eat because we are bored. We eat because we are tired. Angry. Frustrated. Stressed. Sad. Annoyed. Happy.
Eating just got so much more complicated. Eating is no longer just a necessity, it is a social function. Eating is everywhere, at funerals, weddings, work meetings, movie theatres, and eating is shared as a community. Eating is also done after buying or cooking the food, not after hunting or gathering for hours or days. Eating is an easy task, and we don’t even have to cook at all to eat – we just pay other people to. Eating is done on purpose, and it is done as a social obligation. It is also done absentmindedly, when one is not paying full attention.
How do we stop emotional eating for good? We start paying attention.
- Next time you eat, take note of the time and how you felt right before eating. Note how hungry you felt (on a scale of 1-5) and your mood.
- Then write down exactly what you ate, including portion sizes and beverages. Note the time when you are finished.
Do this for a day, or a few days, to get a better view, and then sit down in a quiet spot and take a good, hard look. Do you notice any patterns of eating when not particularly hungry (at a score of 1 or 2), or only waiting to eat until you are starving (5) and then eating a large amount in one sitting? How about your mood? Do you eat when you are happy, sad, or mad? How long does it take you to eat? If you are eating in less than 5 minutes, then you are waiting too long to eat, or you eat too fast and don’t feel satisfied because you don’t notice what you are eating. The general rule is that the body needs 20 minutes before it realizes that it is full.
- If you are not eating when you are hungry, wait until you feel like you’re at a 3-4 before eating. Consciously force yourself to wait until you feel physically hungry. Don’t just eat because it is a certain time of the day (“lunch time”) or because that’s when you’re friends are eating.
- If you are waiting until you are at a 4-5, find out why you wait until you’re starving until you eat. Do you have a pattern of eating large meals in-between longer periods of time? Do you, for one reason or another (which you should find out and write down), skip meals?
Steps to Stop Emotionally Eating
If you are eating when you are sad/depressed/angry, catch yourself the next time you realize what you are doing. Stop yourself in your tracks and ask yourself, are you really, physically hungry? Do you need to eat to gain fuel and nutrition, or do you feel sad and need to distract yourself with food?
Physically remove yourself from the eating area and go somewhere else where no food is allowed. Stay there for at least 20-30 minutes, if not more.
Bring something to do, such as a journal to write in, polish to paint your nails, or a favorite book to read. Keep a stash of things to do and keep them around you so that whenever the feeling strikes you, you can distract yourself.
Do this every single time you find yourself eating when in a depressed state. Soon the process will become automatic, and you will disengage the link of [sad + food] to [sad + something else].
A lot of people have found that writing is the most helpful, so that they can write out their feelings and get it off their chests and away from their minds. But you can pick anything that is not food and that is ideally creative and constructive, not destructive. Find something that you genuinely love to do and find yourself getting lost in.
List of things to Do Instead of Eating
- write a poem
- write a short story
- draw a picture of yourself
- draw a picture of your pet
- make a list of things you love about yourself
- make a list of your goals and how you’re going to reach them
- watch your favorite movie
- watch a new movie
- play a video game
- find an online game to play
- write a letter (real or online) to a friend
- call a friend
- go to the movies and skip the snack line
- go to the mall and just walk around the area, avoiding the food court
- go to a new park and walk around or enjoy the view
- go to the beach and read in the sun
- go play tennis
- go read a book
- write a book
- paint a picture
- go through your closet and organize your clothes
- clean your entire room
- listen to music really loud and dance in your room
- talk a walk around the block with your dog or a friend/family member
- start a blog or website
- talk to people on forums
- play with your pet
- use stumbleupon to find interesting new sites
- go through your photos and re-organize them or make a scrapbook