As you know, I lived in a diet mentality and dealt with an eating disorder for 10 years and it was a real fucking ordeal.
Every day for a decade my mind was consumed by the thought of food, calories, weight and the way I looked. The insecurity, self-doubt, depression, shame, loneliness, the hunger; physical and emotional.
It screws with you.
When your first and last thought of the day is what you ate, what you didn’t eat or should you eat at all for that extended period of time, it’s damn near impossible to know peace, joy, freedom, love or happiness.
It’s a self-inflicted food prison with no window to the outside.
As a type-A personality by nature my fixation and obsession with food was magnified. It took me out of life and made me a passenger in a self driving car headed through a tunnel with no light at the end. It was isolating and it wasn’t any fun. And this girl likes to have fun.
I didn’t know how to eat without feeling guilty. The only way I dealt with my emotions was to either eat so much that I would be in pain and throw up or to starve myself until I barely had energy to use the bathroom. I coin tossed between the two like it was a sport. And every new diet book that hit the market was my next team sponsor. I would tell myself that this diet will be the one that works, it will finally end my abusive relationship with food. But I’ll let you in on a little secret…, diets don’t work anyways.
As you can imagine, I didn’t know how to feel emotionally full or physically full. To be honest, I didn’t realize there was even a difference but I now know its pivotal to discover for yourself how to satisfy yourself emotionally and physically if you are dealing with any kind of unhealthy relationship with food, not just a full blown ED.
The distinction is life changing especially if you are a yo-yo dieter, binge eater and cleanser, emotional eater, or in general deal with some kind of disordered eating.
Physical vs Emotional Hunger
To understand how to be both emotionally full and physically full we have to understand the difference between being emotionally hungry and physically hungry.
Physical Hunger is something that comes on gradually and occurs approx. 3-5 hours after having a balanced meal. You know you are physically hungry if your stomach feels empty, is growling or rumbling and if you are feeling a little tired.
We all know what true hunger feels like.
Sometimes, depending on your individuality and how long its been since you have eaten you might feel a little light-headed, have a headache or be irritable. I become a bit of a bitch if my blood sugar gets to low, hangry as they say.
When we do eat, slowing down can be really helpful in sensing levels of hunger and fullness. Actually slowing down enough to enjoy each bite of food. That can be especially difficult though if you have been a chronic dieter for years. And I am assuming some of you reading this have been.
Over time as we restrict and binge we become numb to our natural hunger and satiety signals. If diets have caused you to not honor internal hunger knocks at the door then the body stops knocking. This often leads to emotional eating and rebound binges because we start to eat as a response to other stimuli like stress, sadness, intense feelings of restriction, boredom and overwhelm.
Ok so what is Emotional Hunger?
Ok so what is Emotional Hunger?
It is hunger for comfort and stems from the desire to have some kind of emotional need met.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to have our emotional needs met. In fact its essential to living a happy and fulfilling life.
Emotional hunger can also occur if we do not allow ourselves to eat foods that we want so we don’t get the enjoyment out of the food we ate. If you really want to have tacos but are “on a diet” so you eat a salad it is highly unlikely that you will get the same satisfaction from the meal physically or mentally. Which can lead to over eating.
And if that salad was not balanced from a macronutrient standpoint then buckle up because you are about to get on a hunger hormone rollercoaster ride that’s headed straight for bingesville.
Look, I’m not shitting on salads, you guys know I love salads. And please don’t get me wrong. Occasionally using food as a reward or to celebrate life isn’t a bad thing either.
Cake on birthdays and wedding days, drinks on a Friday after final exams or a big work deadline that’s alllll good and part of a healthy balance lifestyle.
But using eating as the primary coping mechanism for the shit you are dealing with…. if your first response to anger, frustration, sadness and stress is to hit the fridge or the drive thru well then you might get stuck on the unhealthy hamster wheel of emotional binge eating and chronic yo-yo dieting.
This isn’t just emotionally draining its taxing on your overall health and wellbeing.
AND the worst part is the real feelings or problems don’t get addressed.
So what do you do about it?
You have to figure out how to satisfy your physical hunger and your emotional hunger. This is a huge part of what I do with my health coach clients. And it’s a little different for everyone.
How to Become Physically Full and Emotionally Full
Connecting to our biological signals of hunger and satiety is a two-step process. It involves tuning into our body and making sure our nutritional needs are met.
Slowing down enough to bring awareness to the body is hard for a lot of us to do with our schedule but it is an integral part to eat based on true hunger and not emotional shortcomings.
Try putting the fork down between bites, chewing 10+ times before swallowing, and eliminate all distractions so you can just focus on eating. That last one is hard I know, but put the phone away for a while.
NEXT keep in mind that the body sends signals of hunger when it is calorically and nutritionally deficient.
In order to feel physically full from a meal (and in turn more emotionally full as well) for more than 10 minutes it’s important to eat balanced, substantial meals with enough protein, healthy fat, fiber and green vegetables. In order to deactivate hunger hormones you have to get in enough of each macronutrient so the body feels satisfied and nourished. Otherwise hunger and cravings will be running rampant.
Understanding your biology can help set you up for success. And meeting your nutritional needs is so important to feeling physically full and satisfied from your meals.
Lettuce with lemon juice just won’t cut it.
On to the more challeneing one- Emotional Fullness
Allowing ourselves to eat the foods we want without guilt and without over doing it is a key. But its like walking a fucking tight rope for some of us. One bite of a trigger food can have us diving face first into the whole costco size box of gold fish. Ya, I’ve done that. Its a hard balance to create.
So how do you learn to eat the foods you love with control, ease and grace? How do we learn to deal with our emotions in a way that is empowering, nurturing and healthy?
First things first. Let go of the notion of good good and bad food. Remember there is no such thing as junk food. There is junk and there is food. Focus on eating food. Real whole food. Start there. Have you tried to binge eat 16 bananas? its not that easy. 16 oreos on the other hand? Sure no problem.
Not only do the bananas provide nutrition our bodies can use, they do not activate the same neuropathways in the brain as the simple sugar in the oreos. The sugar in the cookies will release dopamine and spike serotonin. This makes us feel good temporarily which is why some of us emotionally eat to make ourselves feel better. That is until our serotonin levels plummet. The reprieve is temporary and then we go back to reach for more oreos hoping for that feel good sensation again except this time it takes a little more oreos to give us the same buzz. It’s a vicious cycle and it resembles the same pattern of drug and alcohol addicts. Studies show that its as rewarding in the brain…, that the biology is very similar.
That’s why when I was working on getting over my binging behavior I would only allow myself to binge on whole plant based foods that I prepared myself. I was able to bio-hack my binging by understanding the biology of what happened when I ate highly processed refined products loaded with sugar or that turned into sugar and understanding how macronutrient balance effected my hormones.
Not only did I end up eating less (there are only so many sweet potatoes a girl can eat), I would feel less guilty because there were some nutrients in there like beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A. At the very least its was good for my skin, immunity and eyesight.
I get that this doesn’t deal with the emotional shit, right? Like whatever is causing the sadness, stress and anxiety but it helps break the habit. Disrupts the pattern and forces you to evaluate and hopefully deal with the emotional issues in a positive way.
This approach might sound counter productive but honestly, it helped me feel less shame about binging. It also helped physically satisfy my hunger because the food wasn’t nutritionally void like most the food we binge on. Additionally it made it more difficult because I had to cook the food myself and shifting to nutritious food started to change my mindset. I started to focus less on binging to fix the emotion and started to think of how I was nurturing my body and practicing self love but eating higher quality food. Eating well is a form of self respect after all and mind set really is everything.
I get that this might not work for everyone, its just what has worked for me. Another thing to try the next time intense cravings hit is to slow down and examine what the cravings are for and what brought on the intense feelings.
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, leads to mindless eating, and often we do not feel satisfied no matter how much we eat because we are not eating for nutritional needs. This is why shifting to nutritional foods started to shift how I dealt with my emotions.
Emotional fullness does not happen in your stomach. i’ll repeat that. Emotional fullness does not happen in your stomach.
Discovering how to manage your emotions in a way that doesn’t involve food takes some work. If you have several failed attempts at diets under your belt its because logical nutritional advice only works if you have conscious control over your eating.
Our emotions hijack the process which is a huge part of why we get stuck in this cyclical nightmare.
Find out how to fulfill your emotional needs without food. Understanding the cycle and the triggers are foundational first steps. Then figure out alternatives to food that bring you joy, decrease stress and sadness and fill you up emotionally and mentally.
Test out my 5 top tips to stop Emotional Binge Eating. They made a difference for me and they might for you too. Or try any of the following ideas below to help you feel more emotionally full.
Try self care: get a massage, take a bath or put on a facial
Try exercise: go for a walk, hike, bike ride, yoga class or a run, whatever you like
Try getting creative: make a vision board, draw, paint, play an instrument
Try talking to someone: a friend, a family member, a therapist or a health coach like me
Try screaming into a pillow (no really. try it!)
Try practicing gratitude: make a list of all the things you are thankful for and then make a list about all the things you love about yourself. Trust me. Getting present to all the amazing things in our life changes our biology. We literally can not feel fear and gratitude at the same time. And trust me you have things to be grateful for, like the device you are reading this on.