You’re at the office, cranking diligently away on an intense project that was just assigned to you and your division. You look up, and glance over at one of your teammates, only to see him staring blankly at the wall, totally lost in trance.
You’d say to yourself, “How lazy! We have so much work to get done and here I am working my ass off, while he’s just sitting over-there twiddling his thumbs!”
You probably wouldn’t be very happy with him, right? You’d probably assume he was just being lazy, right?
Now imagine the same scenario, however this time, instead of just starring at the wall, he’s eating a sandwich with a piece of fruit.
Would this change how you feel about the situation? Would you now instead think about how tiring this work is, and how you guys have been working hard for hours, so it only makes sense that he needed to take a quick break? It would be completely understandable, wouldn’t it?
I start with this story to illustrate the point that emotional and other non-physiological reasons for eating (reasons other than being truly physically hungry) exist on a sliding scale, and don’t always mean that one is doing it to cover-up unpleasant feelings (although this does happen, which we will get into in a minute), but sometimes just as an excuse for a break, as a distraction, or for procrastination from work.
Unfortunately, in today’s culture, sometimes the only reasons we can get away with taking a break (or the only way we allow ourselves to take a break), is if we switch from doing something, to doing something else (eating, smoking, a restroom break, etc.). Just sitting there doing nothing, is not an “option”.
We all need breaks, however the act of taking a “break” to just sit there and clear your head for a minute, is often viewed as laziness in many work-places. Therefore, what do people do in-order for it to be “okay” for them to take a break? Eat, smoke, get a drink, etc….
So What Exactly Is Emotional and “Non-Physiological” Eating?
Emotional, and other “non-physiological” reasons for eating (psychological, sociological, etc.), include the reasons we eat, other than for true physiological hunger. As demonstrated by the above example, this type of eating isn’t always done for negative reasons, although it can be.
Because of its many forms, it can oftentimes remain “disguised”, not looking like emotional or non-physiological eating at all, when in-fact, it is.
Before going any further, I’d like to point-out the major objectives intended for this series of articles. The first, is to briefly describe a few of the main causes/reasons for this “type” of eating. This is an important objective because there are both conscious and unconscious behaviors that lead to non-physiological eating. By identifying the unconscious causes, you will then become aware of when it happening, and why you are doing it. If you know when and why you are doing something, it allows you to correct the behavior before it becomes a habit (or vicious cycle). The final objective after identifying some of the various causes, is to give you solutions for how to stop these oftentimes counter-productive, and in some scenarios, potentially dangerous habits.
One last point I’d like to mention, before diving into the causes of non-physiological eating is related to being extremely dieted/lean…
When you are in a “dieted” state (i.e. consuming a hypocaloric diet and well below your body-fat set point), your body’s hunger and fullness signals become dysregulated, making it hard for you to distinguish true physiological hunger from other drivers which cause you to want to eat. Emotional, and other non-physiological reasons for eating can increase as the length/severity of a diet progress for numerous reasons, many of which stem from your perceived ability to handle stress as you continue to achieve lower-levels of body-fat (1). As this happens, it can become increasingly difficult to distinguish whether you are experiencing psychological hunger, or true physiological hunger. As you get leaner, your body induces a cascade of changes to increase your biological drive for more food (to increase body-fat stores). These changes can also “bleed” into your psychological relationship with food, causing you to become more food-focused, watch food videos, count down the minutes until you get to eat again, etc.
Causes of Emotional/Non-Physiological Reasons for Eating
Picking-up where we left-off with our introduction, you may use this “type” of eating to distract yourself from work, to alleviate boredom, or to procrastinate from doing the next task. While eating for these reasons isn’t necessarily destructive (in the short-term), it can be counter-productive to your goals (if you are trying to lose weight), simply because you are now consuming calories when you aren’t hungry. Even if you track calories/macronutrients, consuming calories (sometimes almost unconsciously) for one of the above reasons, can quickly “whittle-away” your daily allotment of calories, leaving you hungry and unsatisfied later in the day, whenever you truly are hungry.
One common cause of emotional eating, comes through attempting to “fill” a missing void in your life. A good example of this, is loneliness. If you are lonely, or you lack good personal or intimate relationships in your life, food can sometimes “step-in” to fill this void. It’s always there, it makes you feel good, it comforts you, and gives you a temporary (although quickly fading) source of pleasure.
You can eat to “cover-up” unwanted emotions, such as: sadness, anxiety, depression, anger, etc. These emotions suck. Nobody likes them, however unfortunately they are a part of life. Instead of trying to deal with the actual source of what’s causing these emotions, it can be easier to just “bury” these feelings under a bowl, or two, or three, of ice cream.
Another common non-physiological related reason for eating, is to reward yourself or to celebrate an accomplishment. Really think about this… what special occasion does not revolve around food? Birthdays, weddings, promotions, reunions, holiday’s, post-competition… almost every celebration revolves around food. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, it’s just the way our culture is. In fact, there is nothing wrong with eating to celebrate an occasion, it makes you feel good, and it gives you a sense of connection to those around you. Problems only arise when these celebrations turn into excuses for bingeing. You can start to become more excited for the food than you are for the actual event. A “normal” exception to this, where your primary excitement often is for food, is again when you are extremely lean and dieted. An over-focus on food can easily happen during these times, however in this scenario, it’s more so due to true physiological changes occurring in the body. The physiological drive to focus on food due to true hunger is a normal reaction during these times.
And the last non-physiological cause/reason for eating we are going to talk about, is stress. I’m sure this is something many of you have experienced before. You are stressed about an upcoming doctor’s appointment, best-man speech, first-date etc., so what do you do? Eat. Now for me, I’m the opposite. My hunger-levels effectively switch to zero when I’m stressed or anxious about a particular event. However for others, the switch can go the opposite direction, causing them to “nibble their way” to the event.
What Lies Ahead…
Some of these psychological/sociological reasons for eating (such as to celebrate a new marriage), are completely fine. Others, can lead to destructive coping-mechanisms, which can affect progress, or worse, your health, or other areas of joy and fulfillment in your life.
In part 2, we will continue on with how to identify if what you are doing actually is unhealthy emotional eating, and if so, we’ll cover some strategies you can use, to help manage it.
I hope you benefited, and enjoyed reading this article. If there is anything you’d like me to write about in the future, feel free to reach out to me at: stevetaylorRD@gmail.com. You can also find me on:
Mailing List: http://eepurl.com/cgrTfv
- Rossow LM, Fukuda DH, Fahs CA, Loenneke JP, Stout JR. Natural bodybuilding competition preparation and recovery: A 12-month case study.Int J Sports Physiol Perform.2013;8(5):582–592.