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Physical Vs. Emotional Hunger: How to manage what’s inside?

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While no proper definition exists for emotional eating, it is quite simple in all our minds. When we’ve had a stressful, painful, angering, or saddening day, we tend to turn to food – especially the junky kind – to fill the void that our day leaves. It’s a craving for that box of cupcakes, the jar of namkeen or that amazing (I mean it) 12-slice giant pizza. But, look back on these times, and ask yourself as genuinely as possible – did the binge eating actually cure my emotional woes?

In most of our lives, there are times where we stress-eat without thinking. These could be:

  • Stressful situations in your professional & home-front
  • Boredom – seriously, how many times do you sit down with a bag of chips and switch tv channels?
  • The expectation to calm down after an angry bout – it does take our energy, so we feel like some binging will help!
  • Anxiety – that bar of chocolate looks good when we’re on our toes waiting for an exam result
  • When you want to reward yourself – not rarely, but regularly.

These are just a few instances I pointed out – there could be a whole long list; each to one’s own situations. Occasionally using food as the safe-space, a reward, or a pick-me-up isn’t always a bad thing. It becomes a concern when one uses it is as the only primary coping mechanism for any emotional turmoil. The absolute impulse of opening the doors of a refrigerator, or running into the pantry to grab a snack in times of boredom, loneliness or anger is where the health graph falls drastically.

Physical hunger, the right kind (most of the time), is your body’s way of informing you that it needs nutrition – it needs a refuel. The symptoms of these, more often than not, are grumpiness, headaches and the feeling of weakness. In such times, almost any kind of food sounds delicious – even something like spinach or kale. Before jumping to a conclusion on what kind of hunger you are experiencing, it is essential to know how to distinguish between the two.

Emotional hunger tends to strike in stressful, intense situations and can be identified with the following possible characteristics:

  1. Comes on suddenly – the instant, overwhelming and urgent need for food.
  2. Specific comfort food – you know what you want – what you are craving.
  3. Leads to mindless eating – who, what, huh? No portion control and zero consideration of the nutritive value of what is being consumed (or, craved).
  4. Does not satisfy easily – this is because you are eating to satisfy emotions, not actual hunger.
  5. Not a stomach-centric feeling – your mind is searching for food that has a certain smell, taste or texture. You know what you want, which is not necessarily what your stomach wants.
  6. The end result is regret, shame, unfulfillment – you eat, eat and eat. But do you feel good after? This is important to notice.

 Physical hunger, on the other hand, tends to build gradually and it a craving for any kind of food – not a specific item or taste. Even a green salad may sound as delicious as a pizza when its actual physical hunger that builds from the stomach up. Once you wipe out your plate of food to satisfy physical hunger, a sense of goodness, happiness and relief are felt; not a cringe-worthy regret.

Now, the first step towards curing your emotional hunger-satisfying habits is to identify what triggers your binges. Below are a few of the main situations that induce it:

Stress: the root cause of all trouble!

Office overload, fighting at home, or just generally anxiety thanks to a health issue – all these are forms of stress. When stress increases in our lives, we turn to food and all its magical tastes to ease our stress. However, all we end up doing is increasing our calorie count and dissatisfaction. Stress is better handled using healthier methods like meditation, exercise and alternative meditative methods like tai-chi. Try this instead of the jar of namkeen next time – I am sure you will have a different and better result.

Boredom or a sense of emptiness: Netflix and chips?

The universal truth of life – we eat because we are bored. We are bored because we cannot find things to do. We fill the void that boredom causes with unnecessary snacking – however, this can be taken care of in different ways. Make your snack healthier – skip the chips and choose a cut-up fresh salad or an energy bar. Take up a hobby – give less time to the idiot box and choose to read a book, or take up a sport.

Childhood habits – these die hard, but they do!

Sometimes, while growing up, we were given bars of chocolate when we got top marks in class, or we got a pizza party when we finished our exams. However, these habits of our childhood, for most of us, have followed into our adult lives. Metabolisms are different, digestive systems are much more complicated, and health concerns crop up. Reward yourself – do not stop that. But choose to reward yourself to a gym membership, an evening of spa pampering, or a weekend away. For example, while growing up, I loved cars more than anything. Every year, on my car’s birthday, I didn’t cut a cake or stock up on car-munching treats. I ended up giving my car a day at the mechanic – fixing up every small glitch and a thorough deep clean. I am sure she was happier that I celebrated this way, instead of cutting a cake on her roof. Similarly, if it’s your birthday, go for dinner – but control your portions on that dinner. Instead, give yourself a wellness day or a nutritious treat instead.

Social influences: suffering peer pressure?

Unlike the lockdown period, our days – whether weekdays or weekends were filled with social outings. Dinner at a friend’s, a birthday at a bar, or drinks at the club. Whichever of these events we talk about, overeating tends to occur – whether it is our own greed or peer pressure. “come on, it’s just one more serving. What are you going to lose? Just take an extra round of the park tomorrow!” is something we all hear at some of the other point. Overindulging is rarely a good thing – let go of the habit. Stand your ground if you have had your fill. Sometimes, it’s better to eat just a little less than your stomach needs – space is a good thing in every situation!

While it seems like your core problem in all these situations is that you are powerless in front of food, emotional eating stems from powerlessness over your emotions and capabilities. Work on yourself, it is never too late. Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable sometimes – emotions can be scary, but not managing them the right way can be even scarier. The truth is when we don’t obsess over emotions or fear them, and instead let them flow, even the most painful and difficult feelings tend to be something we are able to overcome. The first step is always the hardest, but the rest of them are effortless.

Become mindful with your day-to-day activities, your emotional experiences, and your techniques of handling and managing a situation. This enables you to hold the reins over your emotions – eventually ending up as control over your mindless binging. A healthier inside gives you a healthier outside. Repair is time-consuming, it is endless sometimes, an ordeal many of us do not want to deal with – but your body is a temple, mistreating it will eventually destroy it. Autopilot works both ways – make sure it is on a more nutritious and mindful gear.

As I satiate an evening post-work craving with a Belgian Dark Chocolate Orange Bar from my own collection of nutritious goodies, I recommend you choose a similar path!

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