Eating for a healthy body and mind

Many of us, at some point or another, turn to food for reasons other than hunger. We might eat because we’re bored, sad or stressed. Or we might turn to food when we’re celebrating. You may have heard of emotional eating or giving in to “comfort foods.” While eating this way from time to time isn’t a bad thing, using food as your primary way of dealing with emotions isn’t healthy.

Emotional eating

Emotional eating doesn’t solve your problem. Many of us may have grown up being comforted with food rather than talking out our feelings. Unless we become aware of our patterns and what triggers us to turn to emotional eating, we may continue this pattern of eating into adulthood.

In contrast, good nutrition not only helps us feel our physical best, it’s also important to our mental health. Feeding our brains with a balanced diet may help us boost energy, think more clearly, and help manage our stress and moods. It’s possible to curb emotional eating and make healthier food choices to promote good overall health.

How can you tell?

To help you identify emotional hunger from true hunger, learn to listen to your body to recognize true physical hunger. Signs of physical hunger can include hunger pangs, decreased energy, feeling irritable or headache. If a food looks good or smells good, but you don’t have physical signs of hunger, then you may not actually be hungry.

Emotional hunger can be difficult to discern from normal, healthy hunger. But the following signs of emotional eating can help you tell the difference.

  • You have to have specific foods. Natural hunger is typically satisfied by any food, including healthy choices. Emotional hunger may crave certain types of foods. These are usually foods that are high in sugar or fat and are highly processed such as chips, cookies and ice cream.
  • You keep eating after you’re full. Emotional hunger doesn’t know if you last ate 5 minutes or 5 hours ago. When eating emotionally, you may tend to keep eating after you’re full. The good news is that you can train yourself to push your plate away when you begin to sense a feeling of fullness.
  • Your hunger is sudden. Natural hunger typically comes on gradually. Emotional eating may be sudden and may be all you can think about.
  • Feelings of guilt. If you feel guilty after you eat something, it could be a sign of emotional eating. You may feel guilty, especially after you’ve eaten large amounts of food.

Handling cravings

When cravings hit, the following techniques can help you stay in control of your eating.

  • Wait 5 minutes before eating. Don’t forbid yourself from eating the food you crave. But do something else for at least 5 minutes to see if you are still hungry. Even if you do have the food, you’ll have a better understanding of why you are eating. You might even find that the craving goes away.
  • Ask yourself if you are hungry or thirsty. We often eat when we are thirsty. Try to decide if you’re hungry or are you actually thirsty?
  • Start with your shopping list. Buy plenty of healthy foods, but also allow yourself to purchase small amounts of foods you often crave. For example, if you often crave chocolate, buy a small dark chocolate bar and break it into smaller portions.
  • Eat regular meals and snacks. When you aren’t ravenously hungry, focus on what you’re eating and enjoy it more. Eat slowly, so you’ll feel full and know when to stop eating. Involve your senses in eating. Pay attention to smells, textures and seasonings of the food.
  • Measure out portions. When you enjoy your food, measure out a small portion and put the bag or container away. Try placing those foods on the top shelf, so it’s an effort to get to them.
  • Substitute healthier. When you crave an unhealthy food, substitute a healthier option. If you want something sweet, try a baked apple.
  • Get support. Surround yourself with others who are also trying to eat healthier meals. A support group or therapy can also help manage negative emotions and emotional eating. They may have some successful tips that have been helpful to them that you can use.

Pay attention to your emotional cues — then take charge of your eating habits for a healthier you. You can do this!

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Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. How to handle food cravings. July 2014. Accessed August 26, 2019.
Helpguide. Emotional eating. April 2017. Accessed August 26, 2019.
Kidshealth. Emotional eating. September 2014. Accessed August 26, 2019.
Mental Health America. Eat well. Accessed August 26, 2019.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. What is a standard drink? February 2017. Accessed August 26, 2019.

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