Emotional Eating Decoding: What Am I Really Hungry For?

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I’m Sarah (she/her), a Toronto-based writer, anti-diet nutritionist, and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor. I teach folks how to have a healthy relationship with food and accept their natural body size.

Hi, I'm Sarah

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According to Rachel Cole, we have both primary and secondary hungers. Our “primary” hungers are typically more tender (say love or recognition), while our secondary hungers tend to be the ones we openly come to the table with—you know, things like “weight loss” or “job promotion” or “tropical vacation,” or something else we assume will fill our primary hunger.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the wants of our secondary hungers (who doesn’t want to be recognized in the workplace or spend a week basking in the sun at a beach? And given diet culture’s influence, it makes sense for weight loss to rate so highly up the ol’ hungers list), getting them doesn’t, by default, leave us feeling satisfied—especially if the hidden motivation for “weight loss” was, in fact, a hunger for a romantic partnership, a group of friends, respect, strength, resilience, health, or a host of other things we’re told weight loss will surely give us. And sometimes, in the course of trying to get our secondary hungers met, we starve our primary ones.

Emotional eating is far more complicated than I could have predicted when I started working with eating difficulties several years ago. In full transparency, I used to think intuitive eating would take care of any concerns related to emotional eating—that, with time, education, additional coping strategies, and good therapy, people would go on to find additional coping strategies apart from eating under or over-fullness, and through legalization, mostly eat with intention.

While I still think emotional eating—both under- and over-full varieties—is a normal response to triggers and ought to be regarded, with kindness, as just one of several strategies for coping with our emotions, I now use additional tools. Not because intuitive eating doesn’t “work.” Not because it doesn’t have impact. But because, for most people, something is just not quite enough. Building capacity for a different relationship with food often requires a bottom-up approach. We don’t always know what we’re truly hungry for, especially if that hunger wasn’t safe to have in the first place, or if we don’t feel like we can or don’t know how to slow down enough to get clear on our authentic desires.

The next time you find yourself eating in unsupportive or out-of-control ways, it might be helpful to consider:

1.        What happened in the past hour that may have triggered me? Today? This week?

2.        What was the trigger? Do I know?

3.        When did the urge for x food(s) emerge? Or did I restrict my intake instead?

4.        Am I allowing for all foods, both physically and emotionally?

5.        How do I feel toward emotional eating? Eating under-fullness? Over-fullness?

6.        How do I feel toward myself for my version of emotional eating?

7.        How did it feel when x food(s) were there for me?

8.        …Or when I declined or avoided them?

9.        Was my pace slow, or more frenetic?

10.   …Or, what did I do instead of eat?

11.   Was the experience satisfying, or did it leave me hungry for more?

12.   What happened after I ate or didn’t eat emotionally?

13.   What happened next?

14.   What was the underlying emotion? Sensations?

15.   If I got what I was truly hungry for, how would I know?

What questions do you have about emotional or comfort eating?

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