I wonder if, when people hear the term “emotional eating”, they picture a broken-hearted ex sobbing into a bucket of ice cream, while binge-watching Bridget Jones’ Diary on rerun?

Sure, that qualifies as emotional eating. But, the intriguing thing is, for most people, emotional eating looks nothing like that.

Let’s pull up a stump, give each other a knowing nod, as we ponder this age-old question:

“Why do pizza and donuts make me fat, when pizza and donuts make me feel good? Life isn’t fair”

Ok, not one of the great philosophical debates of our time.

But, you and I both have a pretty good idea of what healthy eating looks like (e.g. it’s probably going to involve vegetables unless you’re neck-deep into the carnivore diet).

It’s not necessarily WHAT we are eating but where, when, how, and why, and who we eat with.

We mindlessly snack in front of the TV when we’re bored. We eat too many chips and salsa or too much bread when we are on a dinner date.

We graze on treats in the break room all day long to give us a brief reprieve from work stress. When we have a bad day, we treat ourselves with sweets, fast food, and alcohol.

We eat when we are anxious, lonely, stressed, tired, bored, and even when we are happy.

But yet, probably the only time we actually NEED to eat, is when we’re truly physically hungry. But for most people, they actually have no clue what true hunger actually feels like.

That’s because we live in a snack-obsessed culture that teaches us to battle hunger like a Snickers-wielding Viking warrior.

But, what if (⚠️radical idea alert ⚠️) we actually allowed ourselves to feel hunger. Even sit with it for a period of time?

Because most people have lost touch with the physical sensation of genuine hunger. They have no idea what true hunger really feels like.

How can we fix this?

I like to split hunger into 2 categories: “above the neck” and “below the neck”. I think you can put 2 and 2 together here.

Now, it gets even better! I have a simple test to distinguish between the two. I call it the “plain food test”

If your stomach rumbling has you drooling over the prospect of eating celery and tuna with a side of boiled potatoes … you might actually be physically hungry. (Below the neck)

(e.g. “Would I eat [plain food] right now?”)

On the other hand, if you’re brain is dancing like a kid in a mud puddle at the thought of SMASHING an industrial-sized bag of Doritos … you’re probably experiencing “above the neck” hunger.

In other words, eating to meet an emotional need. Cravings tend to be very specific, whereas physical hunger is quite broad and general.

Learning to distinguish between the two “hungers” is a skill that takes awareness and conscious thought.

When you first get that rumbling feeling, ask “Would I eat [plain food] right now?”

The real challenge here is, once you acknowledge that you’re not actually physically hungry (e.g. you’re not eating to meet a physiological need) … what do you do next?

The easy answer is “give in to the craving to make it go away, and try again tomorrow” …

That solution, of course, is the beginning of a habit that becomes harder to break with every incident. The easy way becomes the impossible way.

The reality is, eventually, should you want to move forward with your health goals, you’ll need to be able to sit with discomfort for a period of time, and begin to cultivate resilience.

However, this doesn’t mean sitting on your hands trying to white knuckle your craving away.

Rather, instead of just trying to erase the discomfort as quickly as possible, actually approach it with curiosity.

“What am I actually looking for here, and what is making me uncomfortable?”

Stress relief? A difficult emotion? A way to celebrate? Avoiding a difficult conversation?

Once you then have an idea of what you’re dealing with, you can look to address the actual problem, or at least choose a way of soothing yourself in the moment, that doesn’t involve food.