Emotional Eating and Biological HungerEmotional eating is a very real thing for many of us.

I find myself emotionally eating. After all I love food, and I eat for reasons other than hunger at times.

I especially love the foods that I get to eat on social occasions – like on my wedding day.

When I think about it, my life very often revolves around food and I’m guessing that this is the case for many of us.

What Is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is our inability to separate how we feel – emotion – and hunger.

Today I hope to explore our relationships with food and how we can achieve better health, performance and body composition with instinctual eating.

Are You Expected To Eat?

Think about it for a minute, and consider all the times that you are expected to eat; all the times that it is socially accepted to eat. And all the times when you would be in the minority if you didn’t eat and possible even cause offence or have pressure to eat, even if in reality you aren’t hungry.

Are You Eating Because You’re Hungry? Or Is It…

  • Work – cakes offered around and can’t say no
  • Home – expected eating times breakfast, lunch, supper
  • Meal out with friends
  • Christmas, Easter, birthdays, weddings…

I’m not sure about you but I’d have a hard time saying no to all the delicious foods on offer at special occasions, and certainly wouldn’t want to cause offence.

And what about on a day-to-day basis? Are you really hungry when you eat? Or are you eating because that is what is expected of you? Or for some other reason all together.

Qualitative Eating

I want to introduce you to an idea that moves away from counting calories. Of course calculating your basic metabolic rate (BMR) and calorie needs may be useful as a quantitative measure to help you in pursuit of your goal.

But getting back to basics for a minute, unless you are at an elite level of athleticism, or you’re aiming for extremely low body fat levels for a competition, the rest of us don’t need to think about calculating our food intake.

In fact, in reality counting calories is very unreliable with a wide margin of error, not to mention the ‘faff factor’, that most of us are just not willing to do for an extended period of time. We need something more down to earth, and that is not a short term solution.

Something as simple as eating when hungry. Stopping when full.

What would happen if we all did that most of the time?

Think Emotions, Not Equations

Sure, science is science, and we all have a certain calorie needs. And of course we can calculate this and get all scientific with our food. But do we want to?

For many of us emotional eating can result in us eating as a solution to a non hunger related problem.

Think about this for a minute.

Unless hunger is the problem, food is probably not the solution.

So lets think instinct. Instinctual eating, which is a qualitative way to measure your food intake, will get us huge improvements in health and performance markers, allowing us to lose weight without dieting, and even more importantly stay lean when we get there!

The advantage of eating with instinct is that it takes you away from quantitative measurements and goals, being a slave to numbers and targets based on your BMR, and develops your awareness of yourself, your needs and your instinctual eating habits. It sets you free of measurements and in the long term is more likely to be sustainable.

At an early age we learn instinctual eating habits, but as we grow up we lose this connection as social norms and pressures are expected of us.

Think about this for a minute – what happens when a baby is hungry?

We all know about it!

My 18 month old boy certainly lets us know when he’s hungry.

(update September 2018 – he’s now approaching 4 and, I can confirm my statement above holds true for a 15 month old girls too)

  • He knows when he’s hungry.
  • He knows when he’s not hungry too.


Have you ever tried to feed a baby that’s not hungry? If you haven’t, lets just say that I am thankful for laminate flooring, because he’ll literally throw the food on the floor!

My point is, babies know when they are hungry, and when they’re not. They are not guided by ‘it’s 7pm, we’d better eat a meal’. As adults we can learn a lot from this, as we have ‘unlearned’ this through social norms and food related messages being thrown at us from all directions.

Our eating patterns have been influenced according to the marketing messages the media expose us to, and so we quickly lose our instinctual eating ability.

Become Aware Of Biological Hunger

Biological hunger is identified firstly by physical hunger, a grumbling stomach, and secondly when your cognitive ability becomes reduced, and you have difficulty concentrating or focusing on tasks.

If you experience these feelings it means your body is telling you to eat – biological hunger.

Instinctively we eat when we are biologically hungry.  As I have already suggested, many of us also eat for all sorts of reasons in addition to biological hunger, including social, emotional and habitual eating patterns learned over time.

You can consider yourself an habitual eater if you use the clock as a marker that it is time to eat. This in no way is linked to instinct, but is the expected normal time to eat a meal, and I suggest that most of us therefore are habitual eaters. Think of diet Coke break – the advert in the 90’s – it’s 11:30, diet Coke break.

Breakfast 07:00, Lunch 13:00, Supper 20:00, and some snacks at ll:00 and 15:00 maybe. Our society has grown around these approximate normal times to eat as has our habit of eating.

Are You Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is complex subject and it is important because it is linked with your instinctual eating and your relationship with food.

Awareness of your emotional connection with food is a very important first step towards achieving your health and fitness goal, whether its effective weight loss of or you want to build muscle, improve performance or health.

Emotional eating has a powerful effect on us and both positive or negative thoughts can trigger us to over eat. We might find ourselves eating for any manner of non-hunger related reasons.

  • Sadness
  • Depressed
  • Happy
  • Angry
  • Bored
  • Tired
  • Avoidance
  • Ambivalence


At this point you might want to learn about alexithymea and use the chart below to help with identifying what you’re feeling. The wheel feelings wheel can be helpful in noticing and naming how you feel and provides a choice of emotions:

Alexithymia and Emotional Eating

Triggers, Habits And Rewards

Trigger. Habit. Reward.

We might have a though. A positive trigger or a negative one that may have an effect us that results in eating. Maybe we want to celebrate or share an occasion, reward ourselves or to make us feel better about something.

The food types we eat in response to an emotional trigger tend to be calorie dense, nutrient poor, fatty or sugary foods.

Worryingly, while we might have started as a response to a strong emotional trauma can become habituated. Over time you might find that less significant stresses or triggers result in the eating behaviour. The habit gets entrenched.

The great news is that it is possible to unlearn bad habits habits that hinder your progress.

For successful weight loss and to build a healthy relationship with food you must be aware of your emotional connection with your food and your habits.

Ask, why are you eating this?

Is it habitual eating, emotional eating, or instinctive eating?

Another consideration to be aware of is that hunger may well start at the nose or eyes, when you see or smell a nice food being prepared.

We are bombarded with visual cues through advertising in all sorts of media. If you walk past a bakery and smell and see some nice foods, and you suddenly feel hungry, try waiting to see if the sensation passes after a few minutes. If it does subside, it is likely that you aren’t actually hungry.

Next Steps To Get To Grips With Your Hunger And Habits

  • Get a small notepad and keep a food diary for a week or two.
  • Don’t worry too much about calories – get started with the weight loss cheat sheet below.
  • Consider what type of hunger you are experiencing and why you are eating.
  • Build awareness of your food and emotion relationship and keep building on your goal through process not outcome.
  • Take a look at this activity on how to build awesome habits.


And what happens when you slip up with emotional eating next time?

No problem, just be aware of and acknowledge your emotional eating – wipe the slate clean. Keep practicing and know that part of learning is to make mistakes. Be aware of this and you can keep building on your goals.

I hope this is helpful. If you would like further guidance about what makes good nutrition, and how to build a healthy relationship with food, please learn more about online personal training and weight loss coaching.

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