Emotional Hunger: What Is It?

Emotional Hunger: What Is It?

Earlier this week, I posted about using mindfulness as a tool to teach kids how to take control of their eating habits.  One of the most critical things kids (and all of us) can learn from being more mindful when we eat is to be aware of our hunger.  Some hunger comes because our bodies need fuel, but not all of it.  Some hunger is instead emotional hunger.

What is Emotional Hunger?

Emotional hunger is the hunger we feel when we are experiencing a certain mood or situation.  The emotional triggers are different for each person.  I know a lot of people who eat nonstop when they are stressed.  I, on the other hand, cannot even think about food when I’m stressed.  But stress and anxiety are not the only triggers that make people suddenly want to eat.  Some people eat when they’re happy or when they’re sad.  Some people eat when they’re in a relaxed mood, others when they are under pressure.

Often we eat simply because we are reminded of a food.  No matter what our mood is, we start to salivate when we walk past a chocolate or pizza shop.  Just smelling food can make our bodies respond as if we are about to eat.  Not only smells, but memories or reminders can also spur us to eat.  Thinking fondly of a family member who has just called can bring to mind memories about shared meals.  Remembering with pride a certain achievement can also recall the foods we used to celebrate it.

Being in a situation similar to one we’ve experienced many times can also trigger us to want certain foods.  I know a lot of people who insist on having chicken soup the moment they come down with a cold, whether they are hungry or not.  When my stomach is upset, I reach for dry crackers and ginger ale, even if I really don’t want to consume anything.

All of these moods and memories that spark our interest in eating are forms of emotional hunger.  We are hungry not because we need to eat but because something else internal to our mind has made us think we need to eat.  Emotional hunger is hunger driven by our emotions and our psychological needs rather than our physical needs.

Kids Also Experience Emotional Hunger

As adults, we may be tempted to think of emotional hunger as an adult experience.  Kids, who surely have less emotional baggage to carry around, should not be so susceptible, right? Right? Wrong.  In fact, there is an entire emotional eating scale adapted specifically for children and adolescents!*

Emotional Hunger Begins Young

It makes perfect sense that even very young children should associate food with soothing emotions.  Beginning at birth, babies are offered food as a soothing mechanism and feeding times are often an opportunity for intense parent-baby bonding.  Food is immediately associated with being a way to improve mood and overall feeling.  Having had two babies of my own, I can freely admit to many times having offered the breast to my babies to stop them from crying and to soothe their distress – even when I knew they weren’t hungry.

Actively eating as a result of emotional hunger can be observed in children as young as 2 years old.**  It has also been extensively tested in preschool children*** as well as in adolescents.****  There is no doubt that children use food to stimulate or still their emotional states just as adults do.

The Dangers of Emotional Eating and Emotional Hunger

The main danger of emotional eating and emotional hunger in children is that it is clearly associated with obesity.  Emotional eating leads to a greater body mass index (BMI) and a less healthy diet, which results in less healthy kids.***  If we want to inspire healthy kids, we need to deal with emotional hunger in a constructive way.

How to Identify Emotional Hunger

If your child(ren) is/are already displaying emotional eating habits, it is time to teach them how to identify emotional hunger and to separate it from physical hunger.  Mindfulness techniques can really help.  Mindfulness encourages children to assess their emotional state prior to eating.  However, there are some key identifiers that make it easier for a child to answer whether they are experiencing emotional or physical hunger. Use these lists as your guide, from Doris Wild Helmering and Dianne Hales Think Thin, Be Thin (New York: Broadway Books, 2004): 77 and Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Australia: Hay House, 2010): 153.

Physical Hunger

  • Builds gradually
  • Strikes below the neck (e.g., growling stomach)
  • Occurs several hours after a meal
  • Goes away when full
  • Eating leads to feeling of satisfaction

Emotional Hunger

  • Develops suddenly
  • Above the neck (e.g., a “taste” for ice cream)
  • Unrelated to time
  • Persists despite fullness
  • Eating leads to guilt and shame

Conclusion

Emotional hunger can plague anyone, from very young toddlers through to the elderly.  Eating just because we want to assuage our emotions can lead to overeating, unhealthy eating, and weight gain.  Unfortunately, kids can establish these habits and patterns very young.  Stay tuned for my next post: I will tell you all about how to prevent and counter emotional hunger.

*Tanofsky-Kraff, M., Theim, K. R., Yanovski, S. Z., Bassett, A. M., Burns, N. P., Ranzenhofer, L. M., Glasofer, D. R. and Yanovski, J. A. (2007), Validation of the emotional eating scale adapted for use in children and adolescents (EES-C). Int. J. Eat. Disord., 40: 232–240. doi: 10.1002/eat.20362

**Farrow C, Blissett J, Stability and continuity of parentally reported feeding practices and child eating behaviours from 2-5 years of age. Appetite 2012;58:1516.

***Blissett JHaycraft E, Farrow C. Inducing preschool children’s emotional eating: relations with parental feeding practices. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;92:35965.

****Braet CVan Strien T. Assessment of emotional, externally induced and restrained eating behaviour in nine to twelve-year-old obese and non-obese children. Behav Res Ther 1997;35:86373.

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