Emotional Eating vs. Physical Hunger

Listed below are the 16 feelings that Emotion Eaters most often confuse with physical hunger. Be as honest as you can with yourself when reading this list, because self-awareness is a key ingredient to recovering from the Yo-Yo Diet Syndrome.

These listings merely describe the fattening feelings and explain why they lead to overeating.

1. Anger.

Anger is cited in more cases of overeating than any other emotion. Anger, especially when it's repressed, feels very uncomfortable, and this discomfort is often confused with hunger. But what feels like hunger is actually a desire to use food to cover up or mask the painful emotion -- anger.

Women, in particular, have difficulty admitting that they are angry, due to societal pressures ranging from parental admonitions ("Young ladies shouldn't get angry!") to corporate gameplaying rules ("You'll get ahead in this company if you just smile and agree with management instead of arguing about their policies"). With all this pressure, people sometimes wish they never felt angry -- a futile wish, of course, since everyone gets angry at times. People run into trouble with their anger when they ignore their angry feelings or pretend they don't exist, hoping the emotions will subside if they're ignored long enough. Emotion Eaters turn to food in order to stuff their anger.

2. Fatigue.

If anger is the number one psychological reason why people overeat, fatigue is definitely number two. That's why I call it "fat-igue." Some late-night overeaters use food in a vain attempt to energize themselves when they're tired. Shift workers, those who stay up late at night, and "workaholics" are especially prone to overeating when fatigued.

Other people use food to calm the nervous tension associated with fatigue. Perhaps you've had a nerve-wracking day at the office, combined with over consumption of caffeine or chocolate. At night, you try to sleep but find you're too wired. That's when cravings for carbohydrate snacks occur, because these foods trigger calming brain chemicals that help you sleep.

When we're tired, our resolve to eat lighter and healthier foods often goes out the window. Feeling fatigued, we say, "To heck with calorie counting!" and down a quart of ice cream or a massive plate of spaghetti.

It's important to recognize fatigue in yourself when it occurs. Learn to recognize how it feels when you're emotionally drained or intellectually overstimulated. Once you can label these feelings as fatigue, you won't be as likely to confuse them with hunger.

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Second, remember that when you're tired, rest will make you feel better. Overeating will not. Food may give you a temporary surge in blood sugar that is reminiscent of feeling rested, but the key word is that the respite is temporary. What's more, an eating binge can lead to sluggish, tired feelings the next day as your body tries to break down the high levels of sugar, fat, and carbohydrates from the binge foods. Rest, regular exercise, and the mind/body methods described in later chapters (The Yo-Yo Diet Syndrome) are the best ways to combat feelings of fatigue. Food only makes things worse!

3. Depression.

When life looks gray and gloomy, most Emotion Eaters start to think of ways to feel better, and their solution to depression usually involves food. People who eat when they're depressed often turn to dairy products such as ice cream (particularly chocolate) and cheese. As precisely as a well-trained pharmacist, but intuitively, the overeater picks food that alleviates depression. After all, the chemical makeup of dairy products has a neurological effect similar to antidepressant medications.

Depression occurs for a number of reasons. It can be traced to:

  • Holding in anger
  • A loss, such as losing a job, getting a divorce, selling a house, becoming ill, or losing loved ones (including pets).
  • Physical exhaustion or poor nutrition. This type of depression readily responds to rest and a healthful diet.
  • "Kicking yourself" and focusing on real or imagined negative characteristics in yourself. Try to keep your attention focused on your positive qualities, and remember that everyone makes mistakes. Forgive yourself!
  • Feeling like a helpless victim and seeing the future as hopeless. You're not a victim, and the future will be as pleasant or as painful as you set out to make it! You really do create your own life.

4. Loneliness.

Those who eat out of loneliness usually must push themselves to meet new people, even when the prospect seems frightening. Some of the easiest ways to get out and become active with others involve engaging in some sort of organized group activity, such as joining a volleyball team or a mastermind group, enrolling in any sort of class, or becoming a member of a charitable organization.

5. Insecurity / Inadequacy.

When I started working in the counseling field, I felt inadequate a great deal of the time. I worked in a large inpatient alcoholism hospital, and we were terribly understaffed. There was always a crisis of some sort with a patient or staff member, and there wasn't much that any of us
counselors could do to keep the atmosphere positive. There was a pervasive air of gloom and despair hanging over us. And always, at the end of the day, I was left with the feeling that I just hadn't done enough to help the alcoholics and drug addicts in our facility. I'd feel empty and at a loss, and I'd want to eat as a result. Long-term experience as a counselor and my spiritual background eventually helped me to change my perspective.

As you may know, feeling "not good enough" is an empty sensation. The insecurity and inadequacy that come with self-doubt can feel like a big, black empty hole right in the middle of your gut. It feels uneasy. It doesn't feel good. I think that these feelings are among the toughest to contend with because most of us don't even want to admit we're experiencing them. I know that, at times, I used to believe that I was the only person in the world who felt inadequate. And I used to be afraid that merely admitting these feelings -- even to myself -- might make it true that I was inadequate. So I hid the feelings from myself and others and tried to fill the empty hole with food.

Inadequacy is a very normal feeling! Everyone, including Ph.D.'s, M.D.'s, rich folks, and other successful and famous people, wrestles with self-doubt and feels like a failure at times. Problems arise when Emotion Eaters try to ignore or cover up the sense of inadequacy with food, instead of taking steps (such as returning to college, asking for a raise, praying, etc.) to minimize the basis for the feeling.

6. Guilt.

Eating, of course, doesn't resolve a guilt-producing situation. Besides taking steps to solve the problem, the realization that you are not completely responsible for others and that you truly can't control anyone else's actions or feelings can also free you of unnecessary guilt. This doesn't mean that you have to be thoughtless, just that you can let go of the erroneous notion that you're responsible for the happiness of those around you. No one person is that powerful! Give others credit for the direction they choose to take in their lives.

7. Jealousy.

Many "jealousy eaters" I've treated tend to compare themselves unfavorably to others in a process I call "comparing your insides with other people's outsides." This happens whenever you look at other people who appear to be so together, happy, and confident, and compare this with how you feel on the inside. You may become jealous if you assume someone else's life is much better than your own because on the outside he or she appears happier than you do. Remember that outside appearances can be deceiving, and that to other people, you, too, probably appear to have it all together.

8. Happiness.

"Happy" overeaters seem to turn to food for two reasons. The first is that when things are going well, they feel very, very good and they want to binge on good feelings.

Because the "happy overeater" enjoys food, she wants to eat as much as possible in order to fill up on these positive emotions. She sees happiness as a limited resource that will run out quickly and needs to be gobbled up before it disappears. It helps if she frequently affirms the unlimited abundance of happiness, since joy is our true and natural state of being:

"Happiness gushes forth from the center of my being, bringing waves of joy throughout my mind, body, and soul, and bringing happiness to everyone who sees, talks with, or thinks of me."

Second, people with low self-esteem often feel that they don't deserve happiness or success. So, as soon as aspects of their lives -- such as weight loss -- start to turn out right, they unconsciously start to sabotage their own success.

Happiness, if you've never had much of it, can seem scary because of its novelty. Even though it seems illogical to wish unhappiness on yourself, some people are uncomfortable with anything but morose, depressing days. They almost need a problem or crisis in their life to give them a sense of purpose.

If you're a "happy" overeater, it's important to remember that it really is okay to be happy and experience success! Affirm often:

"My happiness is God's will for me. Happiness is my birthright, and my joy heals many lives."

In addition, the joy won't disappear or be yanked out of your hands, so relax and let go of any "lack mentality" that tells you that happiness is a finite resource. And most importantly, don't overeat because of your happiness.

9. Anxiety / Nervousness.

Anxiety and nervousness lead to a particular type of overeating -- the "picking" variety. This style of eating disguises the amount of food one is eating because only a tiny amount is being consumed, bit by bit. But since the eating is continual, large amounts of food are eaten before the Yo-Yo Syndrome dieter even realizes what has happened. As if in a blackout or trance, the overeater seeks pacification from anxiety through food.

Those who overeat due to anxiety and nervousness use food to relax, so they need to find alternative methods to unwind.

10. Disappointment / Hurt.

Similarly, people often overeat in the face of disappointment. Perhaps a friend lets you down or betrays you. Maybe you didn't get that raise or promotion at work. Or perhaps you feel let down every time you don't win the state lottery. Regardless of its source, disappointment can make you feel alone and hopeless about the future. It can make you lose interest in yourself, and make you not care what you weigh or what your body looks like. When you don't care, it's hard to stay away from food.

11. Emptiness/Hollowness.

I believe that we all have a drive or ambition to do certain things with our lives, and that we owe it to ourselves to try to fulfill those desires. We may not always succeed, but it's very important to at least try. Until we take steps toward our dreams and goals, an upsetting sense of uneasiness lives inside of us. The goal could be anything from getting a high school diploma to graduating from medical school, writing that novel or volunteering at that convalescent hospital. Whatever your personal dream, go seize it! Break the big goal into smaller, more accessible goals, and then take one small step today to bring yourself closer to the life you want to lead. You'll be glad you did.

12. Grief.

To discern whether unfinished grief could be at the heart of your Yo-Yo Diet Syndrome, ask yourself if thoughts about your losses bring about any of the following feelings:

  • A heavy or pressured feeling in your chest

  • Tears in your eyes

  • The desire to think about something else right away

  • Anger, resentment, or depression

If any of these feelings relate to you, you probably have some unfinished grief work to complete. Though not a pleasant task, spending some time focusing your thoughts on the pain of your loss (with a therapist, through prayerful meditation, or by journal writing) could be the key to releasing you from your desire to overeat.

13. Procrastination.

Eating is, if nothing else, a very good timewaster. It makes a wonderful excuse for putting off performing an unpleasant task.

Do you ever use food as an excuse to avoid doing some dreaded task? Do you use food to avoid making that phone call or writing that letter? To avoid doing a boring and mundane chore? To avoid completing a complicated or difficult task?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you've probably already recognized the futility of eating in order to procrastinate. No matter how much food you eat, the task will still remain on your "to do" list. By eating before you tackle the chore, you only make things worse. It makes you feel out of control, fat, sloppy, and angry at yourself for eating. And you still have to face the dreaded situation.

Doesn't it make more sense, instead, to get the task over with (maybe even figuring out a way to enjoy it, too), delegate the task to someone else, or decide that you don't really need to do the chore after all?

14. Fear.

Fear often triggers nervous behavior, especially continual snacking.

Fear is the root of guilt, insecurity, and other fattening feelings. Although fear can feel like a giant foe, it actually has more bark than bite.

15. Boredom.

Like people who eat out of procrastination, "boredom bingers" can fill up days, hours, months, and years a bite at a time. They're often anxious about having unstructured time and are constantly searching for something to do. They feel guilty if they're not engaged in some activity, and eating fits their definition of "activity."

If this description reminds you of yourself, it's important to come to terms with your underlying issues. Why isn't it okay to just do nothing once in a while? Do you always have to be productive to feel good about yourself? Are you trying to please someone or get their approval by staying busy? What other activity would you rather be engaged in besides eating?

Why aren't you doing that other activity now? What steps can you take right now that will fill your life with meaning, purpose, and fun?

16. Embarrassment.

Overeating due to embarrassment or self-consciousness occurs because of unrealistic expectations that you should never be noticed or be the topic of conversation. There is a tendency to take any remark as criticism, as well as a belief that other people's negative opinions about your behavior is true. Then, if you do make a mistake -- a social blunder or a business error, for instance -- you feel as if the world's going to fall apart.

Article Source:

The Yo-Yo Diet Syndrome by Doreen Virtue, Ph.D.The Yo-Yo Diet Syndrome
by Doreen Virtue, Ph.D.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Hay House Inc. ©1997. www.hayhouse.com

Click here for more info or to order this book.

About The Author

emotional eaters

Dr. Doreen Virtue has written several books, among them: I'd Change My Life if I Had More Time; Constant Craving; Losing Your Pounds of Pain; and The Yo-Yo Diet Syndrome. Dr. Virtue is a frequent guest on such talk shows such as Oprah, Geraldo, and Sally Jessy Raph'l. Her articles have appeared in dozens of popular magazines and she is a contributing editor for Complete Woman. Her website is www.angeltherapy.com.

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