What Are You Really Hungry For? The Main Reason We Emotionally Eat

November 22, 2021

You know the feeling. You feel stressed and head for the Haagan-Daaz. You’re worried and mindlessly eat through a box of Wheat Thins, hardly tasting them. You’re sad and find yourself in the kitchen baking (and eating) a big batch of oatmeal cookies. 

But why do we do it? Why, when we feel not okay, do we instinctively reach for food? Many times without even realizing it?

This happens in many variations, but the answer is simple. At the root of all emotional eating is the need for comfort. We just want to feel better. 

The Root of Emotional Eating

So where does this come from?

Of course eating when you’re hungry will always make you feel better. Our body is given discomfort when we’re hungry for a reason. It’s our brain’s way of making sure we stay alive. The longer we go without eating, the more uncomfortable our body becomes. 

Receiving a reward for eating is what drives us to eat again.

Besides the physical nourishment food provides, it produces or increases dopamine production in our brain. We are meant to have a small dopamine reward when we feed our bodies. It drives our desire to eat again! And that is good. But when we eat foods that are concentrated and unnatural…such as any man-made foods we find in a bag, box, drive-through bag or freezer section of the store, our brain receives a HUGE amount of dopamine. Much more than nature ever intended.

Processed food made with refined sugar and flours quickly turn into glucose in our blood stream and spike the reward centers of our brain. With the large release of dopamine, we feel really GOOD. Temporarily.

As we know, the false-induced happiness wears off as insulin is released and the sugar is shuttled into fat cells, leaving us feeling worse and craving more.

But the real question we need to ask ourselves when the desire to eat our emotions hits, is “What am I really hungry for?”

The first step to knowing if you’re actually physically hungry or if you’re emotionally hungry is to ask yourself, “will chicken breast and green beans solve this?” If nothing healthy sounds good to you, and the only thing that will fix this hunger is french fries or chocolate…then you know it’s emotional

Your brain is craving the chemicals it knows will make you feel better. What you’re really craving is comfort and your survival brain knows this is the quickest way to get it. 

And it makes sense. So many of our comforting memories in childhood are linked to food. 

The Connection of Food & Love

As a baby we were warmed and comforted as we were held close to our mother’s body and given milk. Most of the time when we cried we were soothed with a breast or a bottle. If we were lucky enough, we were rocked, stroked and sang to at the same time.

Think of the connection our brain developed with feeling loved and eating food throughout our lives…holidays filled with family, excitement and rich, sugary foods. Being rewarded with treats when we’d pleased someone we cared about pleasing. Parties and celebrations filled with cake and cookies and punch. Special outings with someone we loved to get ice cream. Boxes of chocolates and candy hearts as a token of love at valentines. Warm bread coming out of the oven when you came home from school.

Tastes and smells are so strongly associated with events in our lives that can trigger the same emotions we felt during those times. When we felt loved, cared for, soothed and happy, we associate those feelings with the food.

But the truth is, the happiness wasn’t really coming from the food. It was coming from the comfort we associate that food with. Of course the food tasted good and our brain liked and remembers that, but the real happiness came from the people we were with. The love and belonging and connection we felt with them. THAT is where the real comfort came from…not the food. Food enhanced our pleasure, but it didn’t create the happiness

It’s just good to know. Because when we realize, in those moments we’re not hungry but feel compelled to eat, we can ask ourselves “What are you really hungry for right now, love? What do you need?”

What Do You Really Need?

Maybe it’s someone to talk to. Maybe you need to vent. Maybe you need to write down what you’re upset about and get it out of your head. Maybe you need to scream into a pillow (don’t laugh, it works!). Maybe you really need a hug. Maybe you just need to grieve or cry.

Take the time to find out what you truly need. Because whatever it is, food won’t solve it. 

Go outside, take a break, give yourself some quiet time on a walk, find some nature. Talk to a friend, talk to God, talk to yourself. Whatever it is you need in that moment to feel listened to and heard and loved…give yourself that. 

Comfort is an emotion you can give yourself. You don’t have to wait for anyone else to do it. You don’t have to rely on food to do it. Talk to yourself like you would a dear friend who is feeling just like you are when you’re upset. What would you say to her? How would you listen to her? How would you be there for her? 

Be that friend to yourself

This takes patience and practice, but most of all, compassion. Understanding why the little girl in you wants that food to feel better and love her for it. And it also takes understanding that overeating and feeling bloated, tired and gaining weight doesn’t make you feel better.

When you learn to give yourself what you’re really hungry for without depending on food, a whole new world will open up to you. 


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