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Eating Without Hunger: The Truth About Emotional Hunger

Psychonutrition opens a new window of knowledge that explores and relates psychology and nutrition (yes, they didn't break their head too much when naming it). And it is that, a nutritionist can guide the best diet in the world, but if the psychological, social and cultural part is not taken into account, the probabilities of following said eating plan, or simply of improving nutritional habits, are very low. The same would happen with a coach who guides the best training plan, but does not take these aspects into account. Although hey, this is another matter entirely. Be that as it may, psychology is the science that deals with human behavior, and everything we do in our day to day is behavior . Of course, eat too. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to take it into consideration when managing emotional hunger, as well as when changing a habit in a sustainable and real way.

Do we eat only when we are "really" hungry?

If we go to the RAE, the first definition of hunger "wins and needs to eat". For its part, eating is defined as "chewing or swallowing a solid food" and "eating a food". However, it would be very simplistic to affirm that eating is limited exclusively to the act of consuming any food in order to satisfy a person's physiological needs, and thus obtain the energy necessary to satisfy the various functions that keep us alive. Let's take the example of Maria, three different situations in which she ends up eating, and in which the reason for which she has eaten is very different:

the real hunger

Maria eats a bean salad when her stomach growls and she feels low on energy. At this time, Maria would eat anything from a salad to a sweet. It is the real hunger. In this case, Maria would eat "anything" because she has real or physiological hunger caused, among other reasons, by her movement and daily physical activity. Likewise, the time that has passed since the first meal of the day was made in the morning has an influence (let's imagine it was 7 hours ago).

Social/cultural/commitment hunger

María also usually eats an ice cream when she goes out with her friends and one of them suggests going to the best ice cream parlor in the city. Maria eats the ice cream even after eating an hour before and not feeling hungry at all. In this example, Maria is eating for various reasons, but not because she is really hungry. He eats that ice cream because it is a normal habit with his friends for years , for fear of saying no and "what will they say", because he wants to treat himself or because it is what his culture has taught him as normal in moments of leisure. In one way or another, this ice cream gives you a reward, but it is not directly to fulfill the function of "giving energy to your body because it needs it", but rather it is social or cultural .

emotional hunger

María is at home studying and quite worried about how the exam will go, as well as bored because she doesn't like the subject matter she is studying. Maria takes a break and ends up going to the pantry to finish eating a good package of cookies with a glass of milk and cocoa. In this case, the function that food is fulfilling is clearly emotional . María, faced with a situation that causes her stress and perceives it as a "danger", needs something to calm that "unpleasant" emotion . Unpleasant in quotes because all emotions have a function, and shutting them down with food is not a good idea. The important thing is to listen to them and act on the root of the problem. There are many more situations in which food is present, and not precisely because of real or physiological hunger.
  • Eating out of habit at the time the news starts on TV because we have done it since we were little.
  • Eating unexpectedly because your coworker brings some cupcakes to the office for her birthday.
  • Eating as a coping mechanism for any emotion associated with a life event (breaking up with a partner, for example) or ongoing stress (problems at work).
  • Eating out of habit (although really the above are also habits, but it is a more conceptual difference than anything else). For example, I finish everything on my plate because my parents have always told me to.
In all these cases, we can say that the natural law of eating when we are truly hungry is not being fulfilled.

Is it wrong to eat without real hunger?

Of course not. We must remember that health and our quality of life depends on many factors. In this way, eating is something that is especially associated with social situations that also give us enormous satisfaction. However, it can become a problem when food is the means with which we "patch" emotions from our day to day, as well as when all daily situations revolve around food. Be that as it may, all this makes it clear that human nutrition goes beyond nourishing oneself to live or achieve aesthetic objectives. And for this reason, many times it is something that is difficult to change because it is a deeply rooted habit and easy to carry out (we all tend to have a lot of food at home, shops on the street or a telephone so that they can bring it to us practically on the sofa ), But it is something that can be acted upon . And it will have to be done, especially, when the person is pursuing an improvement on a physical level, if they need to reduce their % fat or if they have remorse or certain guilty thoughts after said intakes, since these could end up leading to an eating disorder.

The importance of psychonutrition

Behind all this is psychology and self-awareness . If you neglect this aspect and limit yourself to trying to strictly comply with the indications of what you should eat, without taking into account your thoughts, your emotions, your past and your present context, it is most likely that you will end up giving up or it will cost you much more. . Any change that you want to generate must go hand in hand with work on your psychology and your context in order to have precise keys that facilitate change. A psychological work where different points come into play.

1. Banish false myths related to food

A false myth is still a belief that guides the behavior of the person and, therefore, it must be modified. Some examples are: not eating fruit at night because it makes you fat, that carbohydrates are bad or that eating healthy is boring and expensive. People do and stop doing what we believe or not to be the right thing to do. For this reason, this part of basic nutritional education is essential, since in the world of nutrition there are many myths that make people believe that eating healthy is complex, bland and boring.

2. Analyze your day to day

Detecting triggers for normalized behaviors related to food , and that do not favor changing habits, it is key to become aware that they exist. To do this, it can help you a lot to make a panel of habits from the time you get up to the time you go to bed. Thus, within the behaviors related to food, you will easily see which ones are positive and which ones you would like to improve. Whether you want to reduce a behavior that doesn't add up or if you want to start making an improvement, you should make it easy for yourself. We will see this in one of the points later.

3. Organize your day

It is essential to allocate time to really important things. Having an agenda and organizing the next day before going to bed can be your salvation. You must also detect and reduce those time thieves such as excessive television, mobile and social networks. You can do this with the habits panel that we mentioned before. This is not just because these time thieves take away your time, but because they tend to generate more stress, anxiety, dissatisfaction, a worse mood, and often damage self-confidence. All this makes you much more likely to eat more and worse.

4. Know your "labels" and irrational beliefs

You may have given yourself "labels" that do not add up to you because of past failures or because of what your close environment has said in relation to your worth. Many times we think "I'm not good enough for this", "I don't have willpower" or "why am I going to start eating healthy if I'm going to fail". It is key to understand that beliefs based on past events do not determine what you can achieve in the present and future. Do things differently and you will get different results. The important thing is to replace these beliefs and labels with more realistic ones that add to you.

5. Be clear about your real whys

Nietzsche said: "he who has a why to live can bear almost any how". Wanting to lose a little fat for the summer or to fit in a dress is perfectly fine. However, it is key to have real whys. These will be the ones that motivate you enough to start improving your relationship with food . For example, if you like to travel or want to enjoy more training or playing with your children, improving your relationship with food will benefit the above. Therefore, healthy eating habits should be something that accompanies you throughout your life. So now you know, make a list with your real whys and read them daily.

6. Keep it easy

Stay with this word: CONTEXT. Changing what surrounds you is one of the primary keys to achieving behavioral changes that have positive results for you. Yes, obviously, it is also important to work on your beliefs as we have mentioned before. But let's be honest, our context directly influences how we behave. Our past influenced our present behaviors and the present directly influences its perpetuation. And I am not only referring to the food that you put in the house, but also to the people with whom you have lived or live. Also what you have seen and heard both in the past and what you see and hear today on your mobile, television, the street, etc. Don't depend on your willpower. Change your context to make it easier for you to change .

7. De-dietize your life

Your brain is designed to save your life. If you go on restrictive diets with which you are very hungry, at one time or another you will fall into the clutches of the most caloric and palatable foods. You must learn to eat healthy without going hungry because otherwise you are evoked to binge eating, cravings and emotional hunger. It is also key that you understand that this is a process, changes are not made overnight. And more if you have been on diets for a long time, or even if at some point you have lost your period. Little by little you must recover a healthy hormonal state so that your brain calms down and is not so impulsive at the slightest opportunity. Remember that it is not about eliminating emotional hunger, but about managing it much better and that it does not interfere negatively in your life. It's not about black or white.


How you see, the psychological part and knowing yourself is key. All of this can help you improve your relationship with food, better manage emotional hunger, and eat most of the time when you are truly hungry. In addition, all these keys can help you improve any other habit.
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