Do Food Cravings Reflect Your Feelings?

How to overcome emotional eating

By Star Lawrence
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte E. Grayson, MD

The boss snaps at you, and you feel like biting his head off. Instead, you grab some chips from the vending machine and CA-RUNCH! Or your kids are on an overnight, you've got no one to talk to, and you feel sort of hollow inside -- doesn't a cupcake or bowl of ice cream sound delish?

This is emotional eating, says Linda Spangle, RN, MA, a Denver weight-loss specialist and author of Life is Hard, Food is Easy: The 5-Step Plan to Overcome Emotional Eating and Lose Weight on Any Diet.

It's yesterday's news that people don't eat just when they are physically hungry. In fact, we're such a generally well-nourished nation that Jane Jakubczak, RD, LD, student health center dietitian at the University of Maryland in College Park, estimates that emotional eating accounts for 75% of all noshing. People eat for all sorts of reasons besides physical hunger; stress, boredom, and depression are just a few.

"We are trained at a young age to use food for comfort and reward," Jakubczak says.

What is new is Spangle's theory -- observed over 16 years as a weight-loss coach -- that people's food choices tend to correlate to the type of emotions they're experiencing. If you look at the foods you crave, Spangle maintains, you can tell what you're feeling.

Feed Your Head?

One form of emotional eating stems from what Spangle calls "head hunger": an urge to eat stemming from intellectual sources such as stress, anger, frustration, an upcoming deadline, or being misunderstood. If the food you crave is chewy or crunchy, "something you smash your teeth down on," Spangle says, you're experiencing head hunger.

"I teach people with head hunger to look at what they really want to chew on in life," Spangle says. After they have identified what they would actually like to crush between their teeth, Spangle asks them, "Will that chip really change the situation -- will it do the trick?"

Here are some highly textured foods that signal head hunger, according to Spangle: Chewy cookies or bars, M&Ms, steak or chewy meats, granola, trail mix, fried foods, chips, nuts, popcorn, crackers, french fries, hot dogs, pizza, and chocolate.

No stranger herself to emotional eating, Spangle recalls working alone all day when her husband was out of town, then starting to make a big salad for dinner. "I was chopping when a idea came into my mind," she says. "You know, maybe I should go out. I have been alone all day. Maybe that little pasta place ... pasta would be so good."

The minute Spangle thought "pasta," she stopped herself: "Instead, I asked myself, 'Why am I feeling sad and empty?'" Of course, it was because she had been alone all day.


"If you are hungry and don't know what you want, this is usually 'heart hunger'."

Spangle defines this kind of "heart hunger" as a response to the "empty" emotions, such as loneliness, depression, boredom, and that feeling that something is missing. If you seek comforting foods such as ice cream, pasta, cinnamon rolls, cheese, eggs, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, biscuits, cake (especially cheesecake), alcohol, candy, and other foods that have a fond spot in your memory (say, Mom's favorite recipe), you're likely experiencing "heart hunger."

Here's another clue. "If you are hungry and don't know what you want, this is usually heart hunger," Spangle says. That phrase "I don't know what I want" is the tip-off. That's when you should ask yourself: "What am I missing?"

In the case of her lonely evening, instead of going out for pasta, Spangle finished making the salad, put it in a special bowl, and went to the prettiest spot in her house to nibble on it. She also put on some favorite music and delved into a course she had been working on. Later, she made some lunch dates and vowed to go to some networking events. The evening passed swiftly, along with her hunger.

Get a Handle on Emotional Eating

Not everyone believes emotional eating can be so easily categorized.

"I find that some people like salty, crunchy foods and some like sweets," Jakubczak says. "When they eat for reasons other than hunger, they pick their preferred food. I have not seen a connection between selection and the type of emotional eating."

Jakubczak agrees, though, that people should get more in touch with the reasons they're eating.

"I have my clients keep a food journal and rate their hunger from one to 10 every time they eat something," she says. "One is 'Starving, can barely crawl to the refrigerator' and 10 is 'Thanksgiving-stuffed.'" Before starting a journal, she says, most have no idea of how often they're eating without really being hungry.



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