Emotional hunger: 7 remedies to fight it
Publication date: 29-04-2021
Updated on: 01-03-2023
Estimated reading time: 1 min
Emotional hunger is a food-related disorder that increased during the pandemic. Expert explains how it is developed and how to fight it
We don't always eat to satisfy our hunger. Many of us use food to relieve stress, anxiety, sadness, loneliness or boredom, falling into what is called 'emotional hunger'. Already widespread disorder that has developed further increase since the beginning of the COVID-19 emergency.
Inability to leave the house, abrupt change in our routine, having to spend a lot of time alone or with the same people, accumulation of unpleasant emotions, lack of emotional relief have led many people to seek salvation in food.
Study conducted at the King's College of London and published in The Lancet revealed that the lockdown caused an increase in relapses or worsening of cases of emotional hunger, but also of the onset of this disorder in those who had never suffered.
Dr. Marta Colombo, psychologist at the Policlinico San Marco and at the Center of Bariatric Surgery of the same structure, explains what triggers nervous hunger, how to control it and how to distinguish it from a physical hunger.
What is emotional hunger?
Dr. Colombo explains:
“We can speak of emotional hunger when the sensation of appetite is triggered by our emotional state, such as:
- anxiety or depression.
It does not depend on the physiological desire to feed, as it does for the physical hunger. Food has an essential biological function for the body, since it gives us everything we need to be alive: sugars, proteins, fats. It is also important to underline that proper nutrition is a great help in achieving a healthy physical and mental balance. But when we use food as a remedy with which we try to calm unpleasant emotions or to fill a void, then we are facing an emotional hunger”.
How to distinguish physical and emotional hunger?
“There are a number of characteristics that can help us recognize whether what we are experiencing is physical or emotional hunger,” continues the psychologist.
Characteristics of physical hunger
We can recognize physical hunger for these characteristics:
- comes gradually and can be postponed;
- it can be satisfied with food;
- does not cause a sense of guilt;
- once the hunger has been satisfied it stops;
- it is based on a necessity of eating.
Characteristics of emotional hunger
These are the distinctive elements of emotional hunger:
- it is sudden and urgent;
- it is insistent;
- it is very specific in food choice (pizza, ice cream, etc.);
- it leads to guilt;
- it does not disappear after eating;
- we are not fully aware of it.
The vicious circle: emotions and food
“Eating may seem like an easy solution to manage emotions, but in reality it doesn't help. Overeating can cause weight gain, which in turn generates both guilt and dissatisfaction with one's body. Unpleasant emotions that arise push the person to seek consolation, that is, to eat again and so one falls into a destructive vicious circle,” says the expert.
7 remedies for nervous hunger
“Following these tips may help you to avoid the vicious circle of emotional hunger:
- Eating healthy and consciously:
- sit at the table with an appetite, but not hungry; eat 5 meals a day, start with a small portion, use medium or small sized plates;
- focus on taste, smell and colors of the dish, try to identify all the ingredients;
- take small bites;
- put away a cell phone and turn off the TV;
- chew each bite about 20-40 times; this will allow you to feel all flavors of the food.
- Start a food diary, where you indicate what you ate, at what time and in what quantities, specifying above all how you felt after. If you realize that you eat when you are stressed, sad or bored, it could be emotional hunger.
- Listen to your stomach and pay attention to how it feels, whether full, half full or empty and your sensations when you have a desire to fill it.
- Ask your relatives, friends, support groups and above all a specialist for help. You are more easily succumbed to an emotional hunger if a good support network is lacking. Relying on a specialist is a valid solution to learn how to deal with difficult moments, be aware of and to recognize your emotions.
- Fight boredom by avoiding snacking when you are not hungry, but by implementing healthy or rewarding behaviors, such as taking a walk, watching a movie, playing with your pet, listening to music, reading, calling a friend, etc.
- Eliminate temptations. Do not keep unhealthy foods around the house, do not go grocery shopping when you are hungry or angry, or stressed.
- Focus on the positive changes resulting from healthier eating habits and recognition of the sense of satiety. This can help strengthen self-esteem and accept your body,” explains Dr. Colombo.
When to see a specialist?
“A psychotherapeutic and educational path can help you to find out if there is a conflictual relationship with food and how to manage it. In particular, consultation with a specialist can be decisive if:
- you’ve attempted to control emotional hunger with no results;
- you cannot clearly distinguish sensation of physical hunger;
- you confuse emotions with the desire to fill up with food”.