Are you eating because you are actually hungry? Are you eating because you are bored, stressed or just thinking about delicious food? Do you find yourself snacking all day long? Do you walk to and from the fridge to see if something new catches your eye? If you do, you may need to ask yourself if you are stress eating.
Good news: there are a few ways to tell the difference and change your habits accordingly.
What is Hunger?
Hunger is a physiological need and sensation that occurs when the body needs to refuel itself. Hormones in fat cells, the brain, and the digestive system work together to signal when energy stores are low. To learn more about these hormones and how they could be affecting your waistline, click here.
Real hunger occurs gradually so it is not uncommon to become hungry 3-5 hours after a meal or snack. Typically one experiences hunger pangs or a rumbling in their stomach. However, when you have gone long periods without food, weakness, irritability, fatigue, and light-headedness can occur. Ever get “hangry”? This slang word is a combination of the words "hungry" and "angry". You may feel irritable because your blood sugar levels are getting low and your body is strongly signaling that it needs to do something to combat your hunger.
What is Appetite?
Appetite is different than hunger in that it is not a physiological need. It may be caused by hunger, however it typically is a desire or learned behavior. Maybe your parents always gave you ice cream when you were upset as a child? Or took you to a bakery after having a bad day at school? It can be triggered by a multitude of factors including sight, smell, and taste. It can be caused by boredom, stress, or even cravings and learned behavior.
This learned behavior can become a form of emotional eating. Emotional eating often starts at a younger age and transfers into adulthood. It can lead to over eating and consumption of too many calories. Many people suffer from weight gain. Emotional eating can help to suppress feelings of sadness, anger, loneliness, and many other emotions. Eating may even trigger happy memories. In addition, certain foods, especially simple carbohydrates and sugars, light up dopamine receptors in our brains, leading to temporary happiness and reinforcing the cycle. However, the added calories can be detrimental.
Tips to Determine Between Hunger and Appetite
Next time you find yourself wanting to eat or snack, ask yourself a few of these simple questions.
When was the last time I drank water?
Often times thirst can present itself as hunger. If you find yourself wanting to grab a nibble to eat, drink 8-16 oz. of water and wait 15 minutes. If you are still craving food, you may actually be hungry.
Am I Bored? What am I Avoiding? Am I Still Hungry If I Do Something Else?
What are you currently doing? Are you pacing around your home, zoning out on Facebook, or just have no clue what to do with yourself at the moment? It is important to take a step back and acknowledge boredom. At that point, go find an activity to occupy your mind that isn’t food related.
Maybe you have a task in the back of your mind that you know you need to complete. Have you been putting off that homework assignment or cleaning your room? It is possible you are using food to avoid getting things done. It might just be time to get those goals accomplished.
True hunger will be persistent and remain, even with distractions and other activities occupying your time and mind.
How Am I Feeling Right Now? What Emotions Am I Experiencing? Am I Eating Out of Hunger or Habit? Why Am I Eating this Right Now?
Perhaps you are feeling lonely or don’t like the way you look? Are you upset about something that happened at work or that fight you had with your boyfriend? Do you miss your parents? Maybe the weather outside is icky and making you feel depressed? (Read more about that here). Acknowledge your emotions. You may need to channel those feelings in a more positive way. Consider journaling, calling a friend to talk, going for a run. Find something to relax and help soothe your soul in a way that isn’t comfort eating.
When Was the Last Time I Exercised?
As I say time and time again, exercise is your friend. It helps to regulate hormones and prevent over eating. When you move more consistently, you feel better. Go for a walk or hop on the treadmill. Whatever gets you moving; do it! Aim for at least 30 minutes, 5 days a week.
Am I Eating too Quickly? What Am I Doing While I am Eating?
Surprisingly, it takes about 20 minutes for the "stretch receptors" in your stomach to signal to your brain that you are full. This is why it is so important to really slow down while you eat. Make sure you pause, chew your food, and take breaks between bites. If you don’t, you may eat more than your body really needs because the body just hasn’t had time to process what is occurring. If you feel uncomfortable after eating, chances are you have eaten too much. Aim for satiety but not over indulgence.
In addition, studies have shown that if you are distracted by something (example watching TV) while eating, you'll tend to over eat. Instead try sitting down at the table to enjoy a nice meal or snack with loved ones and without distractions. Also, try not to go long periods without eating. This may lead to extreme hunger and over eating as well. Work to strike a balance.
Am I Eating Because Other People are Eating? When was the Last Time I Ate? Why Am I Eating This?
Sometime we find ourselves eating just because those around us are eating. Maybe you are at a restaurant and don’t want to feel like the odd one out? Perhaps those around you are snacking or hungry? Get over those feelings! Just because others are hungry or eating, doesn’t mean you have to eat to fit in.
For more tips and tricks on how to suppress your appetite and stop hunger cravings, click here.