If there were no other reason for eating other than to fuel our body, would we ever overdose on turnips? Liver and onions? Pickled tongue? Probably not! Then what is it that makes us want to eat an entire bag of candy, a plateful of spaghetti, a super-sized Big Mac and fries, or a box of doughnuts when we are unhappy or bored?

Taken literally, food is just food—it is what we need to take in on a daily basis to keep our bodies healthy and functioning. Raw or cooked, the food we eat is simply energy. By itself it has no emotional qualities of its own, so why is a chocolate brownie far more comforting and satisfying than a few stalks of celery or a bowl of oatmeal? Food is one of the most emotionally charged items in our lives. Food does more than fill our stomachs when we are physically hungry—it also satisfies our emotional hunger. It is often the first thing we reach for when we are in need of comfort or are feeling stressed. Why is this? One reason is because of the association we have with a particular kind of food that triggers a desire to have it under certain circumstances. For example, when you were a child and fell down and skinned your knee, your mother may have given you a kiss, dried your tears and handed you a chocolate chip cookie. Therefore you were programmed at an early age to associate chocolate chip cookies with (a) mom (b) love (c) comfort, (d) pain relief—a quadruple whammy! What do you think you are going to want whenever you feel unloved, lonely, sad or in pain? Reaching for a stalk of broccoli is just not going to have the same effect because you have no emotional attachment or connection to it (not to mention the difference in taste!)

Not only do we want specific foods to address particular emotions, we also have emotionally loaded reasons for wanting to eat— sometimes to excess and at the expense of our weight. Those who have experienced some kind of loss may attempt to fill the empty space in their heart by filling their stomach. Someone who has been abused or hurt may eat to excess to create a wall of fat around his or her body for “protection” against further hurts. Still other people eat for compensation—“If I can’t have what I truly want out of life, then I’ll just let myself have all the food I want.” One woman specifically stated that the reason for her compulsive eating and obesity stemmed from her deep need to be noticed--she had been overlooked and ignored all her life and truly believed that if she just ate enough and got big enough, people would have to notice her!

If you are an emotional eater who soothes yourself with food, do you know the reason(s) why you crave something particular? Are you aware of what the triggers are that make you want to eat? And, if you are like many stress eaters you rarely allow your stomach to get empty and may no longer be able to recognize the signs of true physical hunger. How do you know the difference?

As a general rule:
1. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly; physical hunger is more gradual.
2. When you are eating to fill a void that isn't related to an empty stomach, you crave a specific food and only that food will satisfy you. When you eat because you are actually hungry, you are more likely to accept other food choices.
3. Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly with whatever food you crave; physical hunger can be put off a bit.
4. Even when you feel full, if you're eating to satisfy an emotional hunger you are likely to keep on eating anyway. When you're eating because you're hungry, it is easier to stop when you're full.
5. Emotional eating often leaves you with feelings of guilt; eating when you are physically hungry does not.

What can you do to put the brakes on emotional eating? Depriving yourself of comfort foods is not the answer. Not only is it emotionally difficult, it is likely to add even more stress--which in turn, can lead to more out of control emotional eating. According to Brian Wansink, author of over 100 academic articles and books on eating behavior, "The key is moderation, not elimination." He suggests choosing some type of comfort food that is a little healthier than junk food, and dividing it into smaller portions to avoid the temptation of eating more than one serving at a time. He also states that “Your memory of a food peaks after about four bites, so if you only have those bites, a week later you'll recall it as just as good an experience as polishing off the whole thing." So have a few French fries, a small slice of pizza, a few bites of cherry pie, cheesecake or chips. Then call it quits. You will derive the same amount of pleasure and comfort without the cost of padding your hips or expanding your waistline.

Author's Bio: 

Judith Albright, MA, is a stress management specialist who works both in person and at a distance to help people neutralize stress and change underlying beliefs that are sabotaging their lives. If you are ready to offload the emotional baggage of a lifetime, give Judith a call at 970 218-8643 or connect via Skype (judith.albright1) to schedule a complimentary half hour no-obligation consultation. For more information about her work, e-books and personally supported courses, visit www.stressfreewitheft.com.