Your Say Yes to Life Monday Motivator: Emotions and Food – Friends or Enemies?

We all know what it is like to have a love-hate relationship with someone.

Or something.

One minute, this is the best thing that ever happened to us. Thank goodness for whatever-it-is. The next minute, we can’t imagine how we will survive another minute without changing everything about our situation as it relates to that someone or something.

This is what it is like trying to introduce emotions to nutrition, and nutrition to emotion. Some days, our emotions and our eating habits may feel in sync and balanced. Other days, well….we get to the end of the day and look back at our food choices and eating patterns in wonder – or shock.

We may not perceive it right from the start, but we eat for so many reasons. Some of our reasons are nutritional. We are concerned about the strength of our bones so we eat foods rich in calcium. We are concerned about our digestion so we add more fiber choices to our diet.

But then other times our reasons for eating are emotional. We are feeling victorious or overjoyed, and so we eat to celebrate with ourselves. We are feeling sad or fearful, and so we eat to commiserate with ourselves.

How do we learn to tell the difference? Why would we want to? Does it really matter why we’re eating – if we eat, we must be hungry, right?

Well, yes. If we eat, we are definitely hungry….on some level, and for something.

But the trick to consumption is to figure out what we are hungry for, and then to “eat” that, and not something else.

For instance, if our body is hungry for nutritious food, it is wise to eat that food and give our body what it needs and requires to function optimally. But if our emotions or hearts are hungry for a hug, for company, for rest, then eating food is not the wise choice, and will leave us even hungrier in a way that no amount of food can fill.

When we eat for emotional instead of nutritional reasons, this is called “emotional eating.”

While the presence of a strong emotion can trigger a feeling of “hunger,” if we pay close attention, our experience of this type of hunger is not the same as the physical empty feeling we get when our body needs fuel.

It may not be easy at first to distinguish emotional hunger from physical hunger, but it is a skill we can learn with time and practice. According to the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center website, there are several key signs to help us tell the difference between different types of hunger:

  1. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, while physical hunger builds more gradually
  2. Emotional hunger tends to fixate on a ‘comfort food’ (ice cream, chips, etc), while physical hunger tends to focus on foods with distinct nutritional value
  3. Emotional hunger will not wait; physical hunger usually will
  4. Emotional hunger doesn’t respect fullness cues; physical hunger does
  5. Emotional hunger often leaves guilt in its wake; physical hunger leaves comfort and peace

Using these clues, we can start to decipher why we choose to eat, and why we make the food choices that we do. We can become students of our hunger and fullness cues, our body’s needs, and our other needs for nourishment and nurturing that food cannot fulfill.

In this way, we can begin to once again experience the kitchen, the dining room table, the coffee shop, as a safe place to be, and even feel grateful for food’s role and presence in our lives to sustain the body within which our emotional life plays out.

We can “eat” in healthy ways for our body and our mind. We can sit with ourselves in the presence of our emotions and exhibit patience to seek out the appropriate type of nurturing rather than rushing to food as a quick fix. We can move towards our physical health and fitness goals at an equal pace as we move towards our emotional health and fitness goals.

We can feel confident and comfortable in our own skin on every level of our being.

If you are struggling to relate to food in a healthy, self-nurturing way, Southlake Counseling can help. Our evidence-based, empirically-supported nutrition and eating disorders programs provide you with the skills and tools you need to feel confident both in the kitchen and in the rhythm of your daily emotional life. Our skilled and compassionate professional staff has more than two decades of experience facilitating individual transformation in the areas of recovery, health, and wellness. If you are ready to say “no” to emotional eating and “yes” to healthy, balanced, living, visit us at to learn more!

Be Well,


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