Linda Hogg, RD, LN, Take Control Health Coach

There is a lot of psychological complexity behind emotional eating or stress eating. One way experts try to analyze human behavior is with the stimulus and response theory. We can be in the middle of a work project, get interrupted by a trigger such as an urge to use the restroom, so we stop the project and go. Stimulus and response. Or a trigger of thirst can make us stop and grab a cup of water. These stimulus and response cues can be pretty straight forward until we get to hunger.

Often when we feel a hunger trigger, we ignore it or put it off, which can lead to a cascade of issues. Hunger cues are the body’s way of letting us know that we are low on fuel. If we hesitate taking a break for food and wait too long, we put ourselves in danger of getting into a vulnerable position with eating. For example, let’s say you’re working on the work project mentioned above, and in the middle of dealing with the project’s intensity and a looming deadline, a stressful situation comes up. Perhaps it’s bad news or an upsetting email from a boss or colleague. Suddenly, hunger is back with a vengeance and now an emotional component has entered the scene. These are the times when we’re most vulnerable to stress and emotional eating.

For this reason, it’s important to not put off hunger. The best way to do this is to have meals and snacks planned in advance. It’s challenging to make healthy nutritious food choices in the right amount when you’re overly hungry. Traditionally, dietitians have recommended a tool called a hunger scale. On a scale of 1 to 10, with one being starving, and 10 being so full you feel sick, we recommend that you start eating when hunger approaches a low of 3 to 4 or when you’re starting to feel hunger coming on. You definitely don’t want to eat when you’re at 10, or wait to eat until your hunger level reaches a 1. When busy and pushed for time, stress and/or emotions may make it difficult to pause and reflect on a hunger scale. Because of this, a new tool is gaining traction that attempts to catch and stop you the moment when your THINKING has turned to FEELING. With this tool, the idea is to stop and look at what your hands are doing.

Often, when our efforts to eat and drink healthy go astray, it’s because of an emotional reaction. The reaction can manifest positively, for example, “I’m going to celebrate with a donut.” Or it can manifest negatively; “I’m going to cope with my disappointment by eating ice cream.” During these pivotal moments, you may or may not notice a shift from “thinking hands” to “feeling hands.” Thinking hands lead you to a planned snack like an apple and pouch of almonds. You know hunger is arising and you address it.  Feeling hands often lead you to the office candy dish or the cookie jar. You’re feeling pushed for time and want a quick fix. Thinking hands lead you to put your planned lunch together, because you know your lunch is well-balanced, and will be satisfying. Feeling hands convince you fast food might be better, mainly because you’re overwhelmed and feel you could use a quick reward. Thinking hands lead you to fill your water bottle, because you know you feel great when well-hydrated. Feeling hands convince you to grab a convenient sugar-packed beverage, maybe because you feel you deserve something more special. Thinking hands put out a tray of fresh or roasted veggies to nibble on when preparing dinner. Feeling hands reach for chips, too many handfuls of nuts, or an excess of any given food, maybe while feeling angry about how late it has gotten, or the fact that you still have so much to do that evening. Watch your hands. Notice what they’re doing, and coach yourself to strive for thinking hands.

During this pandemic, social media is poking fun at overeating, yet when eating has more to do with stress and emotion, and less to do with human will, should we joke about it and brush it aside, or should we address it? A plan might be as simple as placing a sticky note near places where food becomes a trigger at times when you have no actual physical hunger. Create a pause, and ask yourself quickly why you’re there. Ask yourself to jot down a feeling on the sticky note (i.e. sad) and find an activity besides eating food to help in that moment. On the flip side, when you’re extremely hungry, create the pause and encourage yourself to slow down, start with something sensible (like fruit and a reasonable amount of nuts) to nibble on while mindfully taking a deep breath, putting a plate together, and sitting down to that well-balanced meal you need. Coach your thinking hands to be in charge, and your feeling hands will show up less and less. This takes practice and a true desire to create a joyful, positive relationship with food. Hopefully, as tasks and responsibility lift (the pandemic too), you will be glad you took a small amount of time to overcome stress and emotional eating.