Practicing Mindfulness: Learning to Decipher Cravings Vs. Emotional Eating

What's the difference between a craving and emotional eating?

When it comes to cultivating healthy eating habits for weight management, you should always be mindful of your reason for eating. Are you eating for energy, are you indulging a craving or are you eating because of how you feel? Knowing the answer helps to breed awareness.

Emotional Eating Defined

Emotional eating typically arises when there is a flood of uncomfortable emotions and someone is unable to experience those feelings. For the brain, there exists a pain vs. pleasure principle which seeks to increase pleasure and reduce pain whenever possible. In order to alleviate pain, many people make it a behavioral habit to use food as a way to sooth uncomfortable emotions or deal with an uncomfortable situation.  This habit of “eating to sooth” turns into emotional eating when we don’t learn how to deal with these emotions. This is even for some emotions we don’t recognize such as boredom. Essentially, it becomes a coping mechanism.

Cravings Defined

Cravings, however, are a bit different.  Cravings can arise for a few different reasons. They can pop-up in response to a desire for “forbidden” foods or foods that are deemed “bad.” For example, think potato chips, ice cream or even pasta. Cravings may arrive when your brain recognizes that food is unavailable or prohibited. This can sometimes turn into an issue if you psychologically become preoccupied with these kinds of foods and crave them even more.

Cravings Further Explained

Other reasons for food cravings include the amount of carbs and sugars inside of them. These nutrients interact with the brain’s chemistry and cause “spikes” of “feel-good” hormones such as dopamine. This reason for having a food craving is more closely linked to emotional eating because cravings would typically occur in someone wanting to boost their mood. Endorphins are released when certain foods such as chocolate are eaten.

Some food cravings don’t always lead to overeating. For example, standard dieting with a reduction in calories consumed can lead to an increase in food cravings. At the same time, fasting may cause hunger and food cravings to diminish. Therefore, you should understand that while some food cravings may be born from the desire to eat emotionally, others may occur in response to prolonged diets and food restriction.

Examining the Difference

One of the most practical ways to determine the difference between cravings and emotional eating is to check-in with yourself. What are your emotions telling you? What could be triggering your desire for a specific food or your “need” for food if you’re not actually hungry? Mindfulness will help you determine your specific needs and whether they are a response to a stressor or emotional need as opposed to physical hunger.

Also, when cravings arise, try to ask yourself why you might be craving a specific food. If you are currently restricting this food, you may want to seek a healthier alternative that tastes similar. Or, you can choose to eat this food in moderation.

In order to deal with or work through patterns of emotional eating, you should practice awareness of your emotional triggers and aim to create new habits to shift your behavior.

About the Author:
Kristin Lloyd, MS, LPC/LMHC, PhD-c, has been creating outstanding results for individuals, couples and organizations for over 10 years as a highly-accomplished psychotherapist, transformational mindset mentor, college educator and consultant. She is now leading bariatric patients and candidates through massive mindset shifts to help them create lasting behavioral changes and emotional adjustments for happy and healthy lives.  You can find out more about Kristin at www.bariatricmindset.com.

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