Autorin: Sarah Gebhardt

Emotional eating: Do you eat your feelings?

Hunger is the most common reason why people give up their diet. It’s therefore incredibly important to understand your hunger signals. The way you deal with emotional eating can be the key to sticking to a diet. I was surprised to discover how much my hunger taught me about my needs – including my emotional ones! 

What happens in your body when you’re hungry?

Interestingly enough, hunger is a pretty complex process. Receptors in your stomach detect when it is empty. This information is sent to your brain and causes hunger. However, low blood-sugar levels and even your insulin levels also provide important hunger-related signals. Fatty cells produce the hormone leptin. In this way, they tell your body that its fat storage capacity is depleted, thus reducing hunger. As such, having more fat cells should cause you to feel less hungry. Unfortunately, this feedback mechanism can be damaged in people who are overweight. That's because if lots of fat cells are constantly producing leptin, you eventually develop leptin resistance – and consequently continue feeling hungry.

The composition of the food we eat also has an impact on our hunger. For instance, our intestines and liver measure the amounts of the nutrients we have absorbed in our blood. If something is missing, an appropriate message is sent to the brain and we get hungry again.

Hunger and the psyche

Of course, our hunger isn’t influenced solely by our body. The world around us also plays a part. When we go for a meal with friends, we unconsciously eat more because emotional eating can also be linked to feelings of wellbeing. But even a negative emotional environment won’t stop us feeling peckish, irrespective of what our stomach is telling us. We also often use food to manage emotionally challenging situations like stress, boredom and grief, which is where we get the expression “comfort food.”

Emotional eating may provide temporary relief, but it frequently causes more stress in the medium term. That’s because our emotional sensitivity is compounded by the embarrassment and guilt at having binged. And although treating yourself to the odd helping of chocolate ice cream isn’t tragic, you eventually have to confront the underlying feelings.

Recognising emotional eating

Vigilance is the most important key to handling emotional eating. After all, it helps you identify whether you are genuinely hungry or merely want to eat your feelings.

How does it work? The first thing is to stop briefly and take a step back. Before heading for the fridge or opening that packet of crisps, consciously take a moment to listen to what’s going on inside. How you are feeling? Can you detect physical hunger? For instance, is your tummy rumbling? Are you perhaps just thirsty? What thoughts are going through your mind? Are you perhaps preoccupied with a stressful conversation you just had with a friend or colleague?

Having conducted this quick check, ask yourself if you really need to eat or actually want to do something completely different. Maybe not. After all, eating isn’t a moral decision. The important thing is that it’s a conscious decision. Not least because that chocolate isn’t half as delicious if you can't focus fully on the experience with all your senses.

Vigilance enables you to detect whether you have particular patterns. For example, do you feel hungry especially quickly after certain meals? Do particular feelings always trigger hunger? And are you physically hungry or do you just feel hungry? This awareness helps you develop a strategy for how to handle your hunger in the future. And the solutions can be very different depending on the situation. If you notice that you feel desperately hungry shortly after a sweet breakfast, for instance, it may be worth replacing some of that sugar with protein.

If you find yourself longing for a chocolate bar every time you speak to your boss or your mother-in-law, you may want to think about your relationship with that person. Emotional eating can be an important signal to understand your needs better.

The following table will help you tell the difference between physical hunger and emotional eating:


Physical hunger

Emotional hunger

Builds up over several hours

Appears suddenly and intensely

Can be felt in your belly

Feels vague

No insatiable desire for a particular dish

Cravings for a specific food, typically sweet and/or rich

You can stop eating when you feel sated

You keep wanting to eat more and more, even when your stomach is uncomfortably full

You feel satisfied after your meal

You feel bad and unsatisfied after your meal


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