A key skill to learn when you are trying to harness your impulsive overeating is knowing how to differentiate between emotional and physical hunger. It is an important difference for several reasons. First of all, if you make no distinction and just eat whenever you become aware of hunger signals, without stopping to check if your belly really is empty, you are developing an unhealthy habit. This habit is potentially difficult to change because there is evidence to suggest that we can develop an eating addiction.
When we refer to food-related addictions we are talking about the sugary, salty, fatty groups of food. I am yet to meet a person who is addicted to celery or carrot or binges on kale when they feel sad or angry.
Food addiction, binge-eating habits and impulsive overeating can result from us not differentiating between physical hunger and emotional hunger. The first step towards controlling your overeating is to stop and identify your hunger. If you are physically hungry then the second step is to eat mindfully. It’s about regulating your emotions appropriately instead of reacting impulsively to them.
Identify the Two Types of Hunger
- Sudden Hunger – For example, you’ve just consumed a full healthy breakfast but then someone offers you a pastry and you wolf it down. Or, you fought with your sister at the dinner table, your parents took her side, you reached for the pretzels.
- Continuous Eating – Even though you were full you kept on munching untilthe jumbo chip packet was empty. Instead of pausing to focus on the feedback or sensation of fullness from your body, you kept on eating until the food source – the open packet of chips – was no longer available.
- Cravings for Particular Foods – You crave a particular food item, such as a slice of carrot cake, and fixate on it until you have it. For example, as you pay for petrol you notice your favourite chocolate bar and mindlessly buy and consume it without even being hungry.
- Wallowing in comfort food – You eat to change your negative physical or emotional feelings, such as tiredness. sadness, anger or depression, and so you choose ‘comfort foods’ that fill you up, for example foods with pleasant childhood associations.
- Celebrating with a Food Binge – You eat when you feel good in a certain way, for example, mindlessly demolishing a cake to celebrate a promotion, or the start of a holiday (or just to punctuate your boredom on the weekend). If you suddenly find yourself with an empty box of Tim-tams on a Friday night and don’t remember eating them, that’s impulsive over-eating.
- Slow-growing Hunger – You need to eat a few hours after your breakfast, not straight away.
- Satisfy Hunger by Eating in Moderation and then Finishing – You start with appropriate portions of food and are able to pause, notice when you are experiencing the sensation of fullness and then stop eating.
- Satisfy Hunger with a Variety of Foods – You know your body needs a balanced diet and restricting it to your favourite food will not satisfy your hunger or your health.
- Establish Proper Mealbreaks to Regulate your Hunger – You experience hunger at different points during the day, observing regular mealtimes to eat a balanced meal. Eating times and food choices are not linked to changes in your emotional state.
- Eat Mindfully to Regulate your Hunger – To really satisfy your hunger you eat each mouthful consciously. Eating is not mindless and is not linked to your a heightened emotional state or to boredom.
Keep a diary of your eating habits for just one week and notice if there are any patterns associated with your emotional eating. These might be particular sensations that are related to certain places, triggers or physical states.
Once you know your vulnerabilities you can start with developing a plan for managing your emotions effectively. Learning emotional regulation is an important step in your attempt to deal with you emotional overeating.
If you are interested in learning more about controlling your impulsive overeating and staying in control of your behaviour at all times, look up our program that is specifically designed to help you tackle the issues of impulsive overeating.