We all know the terminology, and lots of us engage in it with regularity. Stress Eating. Emotional Eating. The reference is to any type of eating that is triggered by something OTHER THAN how hungry our bodies actually are in the moment. We are literally on autopilot and have no idea whether or not we are actually hungry when we put food in our mouths.
A body in hormonal balance that is operating optimally at a healthy body weight only signals the brain for food when it is in need of fuel to operate. Any desire for food at other times, such as to avoid or resolve something emotional uncomfortable or stressful, will ultimately lead to the consumption of more calories than the body needs, which will be stored on the body as fat.
Most of us are in the habit of immediately satisfying any urge we feel to eat. To eliminate unnecessary overeating, we must tune into our bodies so we know when we are experiencing true hunger signals and when we are not. If our bodies are truly in need of fuel, it will send that message to the brain. True hunger is typically accompanied by some sort of physical sensation, such as a growling stomach. However, in the case of stress or emotional eating, the signal to eat is sent from the brain, as a thought, to the body. The thoughts leading us to eat our stress or emotions might sound something like this:
1. That looks so delicious
2. I deserve that after the hard day I have had
3. That will taste amazing
4. I will feel better if I eat that
If you’re overweight, you have likely created and rewarded that desire so often that is has become unconscious and automatic. It may feel you are eating against your will, and essentially you are.
But why? Desire to eat often comes from and unconscious effort to numb or avoid unpleasant feelings about things we are experiencing in life. Most of us are not taught how to manage our emotions, so we turn to food to dull or distract ourselves.
One of my brilliant clients developed the “Cucumber Test” to help her determine whether she was truly hungry or her body was telling her to eat for another reason. I told her up front I was stealing this concept and sharing it, so here’s how it goes: She has cut cucumbers ready to eat. When she finds herself feeling hungry in between planned meals, she invites herself to have the cucumbers as a snack. She told herself that if she’s truly hungry, her body will welcome the cucumbers for fuel and they will taste delicious. However, if she simply doesn’t want the cucumbers, it must be that she’s desiring a snack for a reason other than hunger.
I found this to be an excellent way to become aware of what’s going on in the moment. What’s more, she finds that when she’s truly hungry, the cucumbers do taste delicious and they do satisfy her hunger. Of course, when she’s being triggered by stress or emotions, she doesn’t desire the cucumbers because she instead has the urge to eat something sweet.
Once you have determined that your body isn’t really hungry but you still have the urge to eat, then what? There are three basic paths you can choose. We don’t usually make a conscious choice, but we can learn to do so.
- Eat the thing you desire
- Try to resist the urge
- Allow the urge and let it pass
By eating what you desire when you aren’t truly hungry, you only reinforce the urge for purposes of indulging in the future. Resisting the urge is certainly better than succumbing to it. However, resisting an urge with willpower only lasts for so long before you indulge the urge, at which time the urge can be even stronger than it was initially since it has been denied. The goal is for you to unlearn desire by allowing the urges to be there without responding to them. The brain will eventually learn and stop sending you the urge message (like a misbehaving child who eventually stops begging when they do not get the response they want). By the way, the first two options leave you with two problems to solve: the consequences of your overeating AND the problem you were trying to avoid in the first place.
Please try my client’s Cucumber Test (or some variation of it) to gauge whether you’re experiencing true physical hunger. If not, recognize the urge for what it is, understand why you’re feeling it, and then allow it to pass unsatisfied. I promise you, you will not die from allowing an urge to pass unsatisfied. In time you will experience the urges less and less as your brain and body learn that you only satisfy a true physical need for fuel.
To get started on a deeper dive into learning how to break the pattern of emotional and stress eating and permanent weight loss, click on the calendar below to schedule a FREE mini-session with me. What do you have to lose but some weight??