10/21/2013 12:29 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

How to Tell If You're an Emotional Eater

One of the most common hurdles in people's lives is their weight. Some people calorie restrict and over-exercise to the point of creating an eating disorder. Others are constantly yo-yo dieting which usually leaves them with too many pounds. Most of us don't realize that our eating patterns and habits are not serving us, and in fact may be contributing to the problem.

One of the most common things I see is a pattern of emotional eating gone awry. What is emotional eating? Emotional eating is eating food to satisfy an emotional need. For example, most of us can relate to feeling sad or moody, and having a piece of chocolate as a pick-me-up. The chocolate creates a chemical change on a cellular basis that leaves us with a happy good-feeling response. After eating the chocolate, we receive a temporary but noticeable sense of relief. As a result, we repeatedly turn to specific foods or food types looking for that quick instant fix.

Many of us do this because we may be blissfully distant or unaware of our emotions. We may be unaware of them, or like to mask them -- for which food can do a great job.

Below, I will describe the difference between emotional eating and physiological eating. Physiological eaters tend to listen to their body's hunger cues and eat for their body, not for their emotions. Here are some tell-tale signs that we are emotionally eating:

1. Emotional eaters tend to get hungry instantly. It comes out of 'nowhere' and without awareness or warning, we instantly crave a specific food. In that instant, we may feel like we need that food or we will die! It is like an intense craving that overtakes our whole mind and body!

Physiological eating, on the other hand, starts as a rumble in the stomach which intensifies into noises when we are physically feeling hungry. Physical eating is different as the body gives us the cue to eat. Emotional eating does not listen to the body's cues, but seems to occur out of nowhere! It literally hits us over the head and demands that we eat now!

2. Emotional eating is usually hallmarked by the types of food. With emotional eating, we are usually drawn to very specific foods. Often it is comfort foods, such as cakes, chips, chocolate and ice cream. With emotional eating, these comfort foods are very specific. When we are in this mind-set, we know exactly which brand of cookies to buy as no other brand will do. The difference is physiological eating is that the brand of cookies or chips is irrelevant.

3. Another hallmark of emotional eating is the satiety point. With emotional eating, it takes many servings to feel full. It seems like a larger amount of food is necessary compared to someone who is physiologically eating. With emotional eating, we rely on food to dull or distance our emotions. It always seems like there is space for yet another serving. Physiological eaters get full easily and usually refuse extra helpings as their body is giving them the cue to stop.

Now that you know the basic differences, how do you stop emotional eating? How can you listen to your body and let your body dictate your eating, and thereby break away from the emotional eating cycle?

It is actually easier than most people realize.

First off, simply recognizing that you are an emotional eater is the starting point. When you want to eat, and feel yourself reaching for the fridge -- stop! Take a few big breaths and get some water. Drink a few glasses of water, and perhaps even get a journal and pen. Close your eyes and listen to your body-mind connection. Start to notice if there is an emotion building up in your body that you are running from. If so, write down the emotion and what your thought processes are.

Now, go for a walk and take a few breaths of fresh air. As you do this regularly, you will notice that those strong emotional pangs that had you grabbing for the chocolate bar start to subside. When you return home, you will likely find that you are not even hungry!

Over time, with consistent practice, you will start to listen to your body and feel the physical signs of hunger and respond to those consistently. Soon enough, your emotional eating will become a thing of the past and you will label yourself a physiological eater!

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