Managing Emotions Without Food
A lot of our emotions often get tangled
up in food, weight, and body issues. As a result, many of us eat
even though we are not physically hungry; many of us do not stop
eating even though we are physically satisfied; and others of us
don’t eat even though we physically need to consume food.
Read on to learn…
How to separate physical from
How to de-code “fat feelings.”
How to set personal limits so you
feel more “in control” without self-starvation.
How to nurture yourself without
Physical vs. Emotional Hunger
What is true physical hunger? What does it feel like?
Hunger is an internal, physiological drive to find and eat food. It
usually occurs 3-5 hours after eating a meal (or substantial snack)
when our blood sugar levels begin to drop. Hunger usually results in
an empty, grumbling feeling in our stomach. We may feel weak, shaky,
dizzy, or irritable; or we may get a headache when we are feeling
When we were babies, we all had a very good sense of physical
hunger. We instinctively cried and searched for our mother’s breast
or bottle when we were hungry. And, we instinctively stopped sucking
and turned away from our mother’s breast or bottle when our physical
needs were met.
Do we only eat out of physical hunger? And do we always stop eating
when our physical needs are met?
Absolutely not! Now our appetites are affected by a variety of
external stimuli that have nothing to do with our internal physical
needs. What are some external cues that trigger you to start eating
or to overeat?
Emotions: Anxiety or stress, loneliness, sadness, happiness,
boredom, fatigue or sleepiness—all of these emotions may trigger
eating (or overeating).
Rewards: “I deserve to eat this, I’ve had a hard day.” “Our
team/class won, so we get to celebrate with all-you-can-eat pizza!”
Social situations: Parties, holidays, eating out, being with
friends, family, or co-workers—we may associate food and eating with
each of these social situations.
Habit: “It’s 12 noon, time for lunch.” “I always eat while
watching TV.” “I have to clean my plate, my parents always told me
Taste: The delicious aroma of fresh-baked cookies may trigger you
to drop into a bakery for a sample, even if you’ve just had lunch.
Deprivation/Diets: Whether intentional or not, going without
adequate food (or favorite foods) for long periods of time often
trigger overeating beyond physical requirements once food (or
favorite foods) are made available.
Eating in response to these external cues is mostly a learned
response (i.e. we aren’t instinctively driven to eat for these
reasons). And, it's totally normal to sometimes eat (and even
overeat) for these reasons. But, too much eating in response to
these external stimuli can result in weight problems and unhealthy
emotional overeating or binge eating. Click here for more info on
binge eating and what you can do to stop.
Do we sometimes NOT eat even though we are physically hungry?
Absolutely! Now we sometimes suppress our hunger and/or choose to
ignore it. What are some reasons why you don’t eat even though you
physically need food?
Diets: “I can’t eat that. It’s not allowed on my diet!”
Guilt: “I overate last night, so I’m not going to eat anything
today to make up for it.”
Emotions (often disguised as “fat feelings”)
Feeling out of control or overwhelmed: “At least I can keep my
weight in control.”
Feeling unhappy: “If only I were thin, my life would be so much
better. If I stick to my diet, I’ll be happier.”
Time constraints: “I’m too busy to stop for lunch.”
Food is one of our most basic human needs. Denying ourselves from
eating is similar to denying ourselves from going to the bathroom.
When you have to go, you REALLY have to go. Otherwise, you’ll start
obsessing about how badly you need to go, you won’t be able to
concentrate on anything else, and eventually, you will have an
accident (i.e. you’ll wet your pants). The same is true with eating.
If you don’t eat when you’re body tells you you’re hungry, you’ll
start obsessing about food, you won’t be able to concentrate on
anything else, and eventually, you will have an accident (i.e.
you’ll binge!). It’s totally normal to sometimes NOT eat because
you’re on the go, and food is not readily available. But, ongoing
restriction of food intake can result in weight problems and
unhealthy restrictive eating. Click here for more info on
restrictive eating and what you can do to stop.
Heal Disconnected Eating
Disconnected eating occurs when eating behavior is mostly controlled
by the external factors discussed above (rather than the internal
physiological responses to hunger). Read on to learn how to untangle
your emotional issues from your food issues and to discover
physically connected eating again.
1. I Feel Fat! When fat is not what I really feel.
Learn to identify and express your true emotions.
Fat is not a feeling. You don’t feel brunette or blonde; how can you
feel fat? Often we translate all of our negative or uncomfortable
feelings into the “language of fat.” Putting yourself on a diet is
not going to make these underlying feelings go away. It’s just a
temporary way to numb or distract yourself.
Next time you feel “fat,” try to pinpoint exactly what you are
feeling (click here for a
feeling menu). Are you feeling insecure,
inadequate, or overwhelmed? Sad, helpless, or angry?
Once you’ve identified your feelings, try to get them out. Write
them down in a personal journal, talk about them with a close friend
or family member, share them with a counselor. If you get your
feelings out, it’s easier to deal with them appropriately and/or let
them go. Otherwise, you’re more likely to translate them into “fat
feelings” and incorrectly respond to them with self-hatred and
2. Starving for control. When weight control is not what I really
Learn to set limits and assert independence without food.
It’s not uncommon for college students to feel like their lives are
completely out of control. After all, they are being stretched in a
million different directions, trying to meet the never-ending
demands of their professors, their student groups, their employers,
their parents, their friends, their romantic partners, and in some
cases, their own children. All this while they face the uncertainty
of their immediate future (“Will I get financial aid? Who am I going
to live with next year? Am I going to get all my classes? What will
be served in the cafeteria today?), as well as the unknowns of their
long-term future (Where will I get a job after I graduate? Who will
I marry? What exactly do I want to be when I grow up?). With all
these demands and uncertainties, it’s no wonder you feel out of
control. However, trying to rigidly control your food intake,
exercise plan, and weight or shape will do nothing to help you gain
control over your life. On the contrary, you may find yourself
feeling more unhappy, more isolated, more overwhelmed, and more out
of control by trying to control these things.
Accept that many things in life cannot be controlled. While it’s
good and necessary to plan and prepare for your future, it’s
impossible to know exactly what tomorrow will bring. Change may be
uncomfortable, but it is a reality. It’s better to expect it, rather
than desperately try to avoid it. Try to focus on the present (i.e.
what you need to accomplish today, this week, or this semester), and
hold off on worrying about next year and beyond.
Check your balance. There are six aspects of human wellness
(physical, emotional, spiritual, occupational, intellectual, and
social). Each of these aspects needs to be nurtured in order for you
to be a truly healthy, happy, and whole individual. While it’s
normal to be stronger or weaker in certain areas, ignoring one or
two areas can lead to imbalance and distress. For instance, if you
spend all your time studying and working to maximize your
intellectual and occupational self (and/or spend excessive time
exercising or worrying about food to maximize your physical self),
but you never allow yourself time to be with friends (social self)
or to relax (emotional self), you may develop health problems
related to stress (depression, anxiety, chronic headaches, digestive
problems, high blood pressure, sleep problems, etc.). In addition,
if you are focusing all of your energy in only one or two areas, you
lose perspective of the overall importance of things. For instance,
getting a “B” on a paper or gaining one pound becomes “the end of
the world!” Finding your personal balance takes time, but is well
worth the effort.
Learn to prioritize. Make a list of all the activities you are
juggling. Your list is probably quite long (including classes,
homework, job, household chores, taking care of family, being with
friends or romantic partner, and any number of extracurricular
activities). Looking at your list, it’s possible to see that you
really don’t have time to do all these things and still have enough
time for your self (i.e. to exercise, to prepare healthy meals, to
relax, and to get 8 hours of sleep every night). What is your
alternative? Not take care of yourself?
Realize that if you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll be less
effective in the other areas of your life. So, you’ve got to find
some way to make time for YOU. Start by ranking the activities that
you value the most. To accomplish what matters most to you, you may
have to give up some of the other activities on your list or learn
to combine one with another. For instance, you may decide that your
evening babysitting job is taking up more time (and causing more
stress) than it’s worth, so you give that up for a while. Or, you
may discover that you can fit exercise in by combining it with
something else. For example, you can exercise with friends, study
while riding a stationary bike, do housework vigorously to music, or
start walking or biking to school.
Practice saying no. Are you someone who is always trying to please
others? Who always takes on extra projects or responsibilities when
you are asked to? Who sacrifices your own time, your own interests,
or your own needs for someone else’s benefit? If so, you are certain
to feel exhausted, overwhelmed, resentful, angry, and out of
control. Learning how to say “No” is not easy. You may be afraid of
disappointing others or of being viewed negatively (or even
disliked) by others if you say “No.” But, this is unlikely. Just as
you wouldn’t stop liking or respecting someone because they declined
to participate in one project or activity, your friends, peers, and
co-workers will certainly not feel any differently about you. Being
assertive with your needs and wants may not feel comfortable at
first, but with practice and experience you’ll reap the many
Let go of perfection. While it’s very positive to always strive
for your personal best, it’s not reasonable or healthy to strive for
perfection in all things. No one is (or can be) perfect. If you set
such high standards for yourself, you are certain to fail and feel
inadequate no matter how well you perform.
3. When Food is Love. When food relief is not what I really need.
Learn to nurture yourself without food.
Separate emotional hunger from physical hunger. Before you put
anything into your mouth, say “HALT.” Ask yourself, is this physical
Hunger? Or, am I eating because I’m feeling Anxious/stressed,
Lonely/depressed, or Tired/bored. Eating is not going to make the
underlying feelings go away. It’s just a temporary way to numb and
Talk through, rather than eat through, negative feelings. Find a
friend, family member, support group, or counselor you can be open
with. Expressing your bottled up tension to a sympathetic ear can be
Enjoy things you find relaxing. Music, bubble baths, fragrances,
candles, massages, reading, napping, stretching...Take time to relax
yourself on a regular basis – You do deserve it!
Be close to nature. Enjoy gardens, sunsets, the beach, birds, a
campfire, the stars – Nature can be very soothing!
Increase loving feelings towards yourself and others. Smile, give
and receive hugs, reflect on your positive qualities, count your
blessings, praise the things you like about yourself and others,
learn to forgive yourself and others.
Move and enjoy your body. Stretch, dance, breathe deeply, ride a
bike, go for a walk, lift weights, roller blade, swim, take a yoga
or an aerobics class, run...
Get enough sleep. Most people need somewhere between 7 and 8 hours
of sleep every night. If your body is chronically sleep-deprived,
your stress hormone levels will be elevated throughout the day, you
will be less able to cope with various life stresses, and you will
be more inclined to eat to keep yourself awake.
Be smart with caffeine. Caffeine is a very effective stimulant
found in coffee, tea, many sodas, and some over-the-counter
medications and dietary supplements. While moderate amounts of
caffeine can give you an extra physical and/or mental boost when you
need it most, excessive caffeine intake can cause trouble. Excessive
caffeine raises stress hormone levels, worsens anxiety, and
interferes with quality sleep. Click here for more info about
Seek spiritual connection. Prayer, meditation, inspirational
Avoid unnecessary competition. Too much concern with winning in
too many areas of your life can create excessive tension and anxiety
and make one unnecessarily aggressive.
Plan ahead. Disorganization can breed stress. Having too many
projects going simultaneously often leads to confusion,
forgetfulness, and a sense that uncompleted projects are hanging
over your head. When possible, take on projects one at a time and
work on them until completed.
Have fun and remain playful. We all need to occasionally escape
the pressures of life and have fun. Find activities that are
absorbing and enjoyable to you: write, paint, sing, play a musical
instrument, visit a museum or amusement park, go to a movie or
sporting event, travel, learn a new skill, play a game, laugh out
Discover Physically-Connected Eating Again
Disconnected eating occurs when eating behavior is mostly controlled
by external factors (i.e. emotions, social situations, habits, or
diets) rather than the internal physiological responses to hunger.
Once you discover physically-connected eating again (i.e. eating in
response to hunger and fullness cues), you will feel better and
achieve (or maintain) whatever weight is healthy for YOU.
Dump dieting forever. Diets don’t
work. They increase your loss of lean body mass vs. fat, they
slow down your metabolism, and they make weight re-gain more
likely. Also, most are nutritionally inadequate and overly
restrictive, which can lead to fatigue, food cravings, binge
eating, depression, and weight re-gain.
Focus on health and fitness, not weight. The number on the scale
says nothing about your body composition or your health and fitness
status. Look for improvements in your energy, strength, endurance,
flexibility, resting heart rate, blood pressure, or blood
cholesterol levels as true measures of success.
Relate to food as nourishing fuel. It’s not a comforting friend or
a fattening enemy. It’s fuel! If you don’t provide your body with
adequate, high quality fuel (from carbohydrate, protein, and fat),
it will not perform well.
Listen to your body carefully. Make a distinction between
physiological and emotional hunger. Eat when you are physiologically
hungry, and stop when you are physiologically full. It’s normal to
sometimes eat because it’s there, because it tastes good, or because
it will make you feel good. And, it’s normal to sometimes not eat
because of time constraints. But most of the time, listen to your
Legalize all foods and end deprivation. There is no such thing as
“good” or “bad” foods, only good or bad diets. Realize that once you
meet your basic core nutrient needs, its fine to have some tasty
“empty calories” (i.e. calorically dense foods that have very few
nutrients, but lost of good taste and flavor). When food is
off-limits, you want it more and that can lead to binge eating.
Moderation is key!
Discover the right fuel mix for you. Protein and fat promote
satiety (or fullness). If you are consuming too little of these, you
might experience rampant sugar/carbohydrate cravings throughout the
day. A handful of nuts, a slice of cheese, or some real oil and
vinegar salad dressing may be just what you need to keep your
appetite and mood in check.
Realize that what you eat at one meal or on one day does not make
or break your eating plan. It costs 3500 extra calories to gain one
pound. It’s normal to overeat once in a while. Put it behind you,
and move forward without fear that you are going to get fat. It
takes days of overeating to gain weight.
Eat slowly, at a table, in full awareness. It takes 10-20 minutes
for your brain to get the message from your stomach that you are
full. If you gulp down your food or eat on the run, your brain will
not feel satisfied and you are likely to overeat.
Plan ahead. Take time to plan nourishing meals and snacks. Keep in
mind that your body needs to re-fuel every 3-5 hours. If you let
your body get overly hungry, you are more likely to overeat and/or
make poor choices when food is finally available. Healthy eating
doesn't just happen when you are in college; you have to make it
Move and enjoy your body…not because you have to, but because you
want to. Regular physical activity helps to reduces stress, improve
sleep, boost energy, and raise self-esteem. If you feel good on the
inside, you're much more likely to nourish your body with healthy
foods and you're much less likely to overeat.
Be moderate and flexible in all you do. Physical activity (like
food) is essential in moderation, but excessive amounts can lead to
over-training injuries and fatigue.
Sheri Barke, MPH, RD
COC, Student Health & Wellness Center