Physical vs Psychological Hunger; What Purpose Does Food Serve For You? By Tracy Tucker

Physical vs Psychological Hunger; What Purpose Does Food Serve For You?

by Tracy Tucker, AM, LCSW, EMDR

Have you ever had a really busy day at work and forgotten to eat? What about been really hungry, to then have unintentionally overeaten to the point of feeling sick? Maybe you treat yourself to your favorite sweet each time you exercise, land a new client or get a good grade on an exam as a reward?

It’s so important that we begin, if we aren’t already, by practicing awareness of our eating patterns & thoughts surrounding food. Perhaps you’ve experienced a scenario mentioned above, but only just recognized it as your focus was being drawn to it. We can only begin to think about & ultimately make changes in our life if we’re practicing awareness.

Once we find ourself being more aware, we can then begin to ask ourself ‘what purpose does this serve?’ in regards to what we are choosing to eat. That question can allow us to differentiate between various types of hunger & eating patterns, including physical hunger, emotional hunger, utilizing food as a reward or punishment and eating out of habit or expectation.

When it comes to identifying physical hunger, we need to be in tune with our body’s hunger cues. Our primary hunger cues of when we should eat are when our stomach is growling & when our stomach is empty. Other hunger cues can include headache, lack of energy & shakiness, however these cues are our body’s way of telling us we are overly hungry. While eating, it takes about 20 minutes for our body to communicate to our brain that we’ve had enough, which is why it’s important to take our time when possible. Ideally, we should aim to feel satisfied, meaning our stomach is no longer growling or empty, but it’s also not overly full & uncomfortable, or necessarily even full.

In regards to emotional hunger, food can be utilized as a blanket response to any or all emotions that may arise, negative or positive. It can be a conscious or unconscious process & is a maladaptive attempt to address, soothe, decrease, increase, celebrate, distract from, stifle or shove down the emotions. Again, awareness is key; in that we need to identify the particular emotions we’re experiencing, even if it means printing a list of emotion words off the Internet. It’s easy to begin rattling off sad, mad, happy, but it’s much easier, particularly in the beginning, to use a cheat sheet with a variety of options. Once we’ve identified what we’re feeling, rather than turning to food, we want to find a way to address it directly. Some examples include: tired=sleep, bored=engage (read, play a game, etc.), happy=express it.

As far as food being utilized as a reward, sometimes we identify particular meals or treats that we set as a reward for doing a certain activity, once we reach a particular goal or if we’ve had a difficult day or a great day, etc. While I think rewards are wonderful, there are so many excellent things we can identify that can serve as rewards that are not food related. Food, or the omission of food, can also serve as a punishment. For example, one could think a meeting went horribly at work that day; therefore they don’t deserve to eat more than crackers for dinner. In either case, reward or punishment, food is not serving an adaptive nor healthy purpose.

Another challenging area is eating out of habit or expectation. Sadly, this is something that is ingrained within us, beginning at an early age. That makes it difficult to do otherwise, like only eat when we’re physically hungry. As soon as we’re school aged, if not younger, we learn that there’s a specific time for breakfast, lunch, dinner & snacks. We are often either eating based on our school, work or family’s schedule or the belief that noon equals lunch time. If we’re not hungry at those times, it’s not always feasible to eat when we are physically hungry.

Like most things, all we can do is try our best & practice awareness. This will allow us to be in tune with our body & hunger cues, identify emotions & address them most appropriately & allow us to utilize food as fuel; the purpose that it serves.

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