Emotional eating. Learn how to tell the difference between true hunger and emotional hunger.
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man binging on spaghettiTrue hunger

We eat for many reasons. We eat in response to both true hunger and emotional hunger. The signs of true hunger may include the stomach rumbles, fatigue, difficulty focusing, food cravings and negative changes in mood.

Young children are often fascinating role models of understanding hunger and fullness. They may go through phases of eating lots when they are growing and at other times choosing not to eat much at all. A child may be eating one of their favorite foods and leave just an itsy bite on their plate and claim they are full. Many adults, on the other hand, would find it difficult to leave a bite of any food on their plate, especially if it is one of their favourite foods. Over time, adults often become less sensitive in detecting hunger cues in response to habit, restrictive dieting, stress, sadness or other powerful emotional cues that urge us to eat. It becomes tricky to detect true hunger patterns since eating is also connected to childhood food associations, memories, cultural beliefs and traditions.


Everyone has a unique eating pattern that works for them. Some people choose to graze and eat meals and several snacks every few hours, while others find eating three square meals a day works well. Your hunger patterns will differ on a day to day basis and on the weekend versus weekdays.

If you are carrying extra body weight, it is a good idea to tap into hunger and fullness cues more closely. Each time you are about to eat, ask yourself if you have any of the signs of true hunger mentioned above. When you finish a meal or snack, ask yourself if you are comfortably full or too full. Rank hunger from 1 to 5 using the following scale, and aim to fall more often at 2, 3 and 4.

Your hunger and fullness scale:

1= extreme hunger
2= moderate hunger
3= comfortable (not hungry or not full)
4= moderate fullness
5=extreme fullness and discomfort

This single area of focus created a chain reaction of good things: time to fit in fitness, the energy to make a healthy supper and the motivation to prepare meals for the day ahead. It also meant she was less prone to vending machine quick fixes and stress eating in the evening.

Emotional hungerlittle boy not eating

One of the most difficult parts of my job as a dietitian is getting my clients to tune in to the emotional reasons for eating. You already know that, as the “chocoholic dietitian,” I enjoy chocolate as a comfort food. It is completely normal to eat to celebrate when you are happy, to comfort yourself when you are sad, or to soothe yourself by chowing down on something delicious when you are stressed. Everyone eats for emotional reasons sometimes. When emotional eating starts to become a regular negative influence on your health, mood, body image and relationship with food, it is important to learn other ways to comfort yourself without food.

If you are eating in a way that feels uncomfortable to you, there are some important questions you can begin exploring. Remember to dig deep, be honest with yourself and explore the true answers to these questions rather than your surface thoughts.

Here are my top three questions to ponder:

What is eating me? If I am eating when I am not truly hungry, is it because I am stressed, sad, bored, angry, worried etc.?

What am I hungry for? What am I looking for in my life that has not come my way yet? What fulfills me and brings me joy?

How can I comfort myself without food? How else can I soothe or nurture myself? Is there an enjoyable hobby, task or activity that I could do? Is there a friend I can call or pet I can play with?

The answers to these questions may be clear and simple, but more often than not the answers to these questions and what to do about them can be painful and difficult. With the help of a clinical psychologist, you can begin to explore these questions and begin eating in a way that feels more comfortable for you.

Andrea’s ‘D-list’ for help with emotional eating

Tackling emotional eating is a tough task and requires ongoing practice. Here is my “D-list” that may help you start exploring some strategies to help you with emotional eating:

  • Determine what’s eating you? Are you stressed, sad, bored, angry or eating out of habit when you are not truly hungry?
  • De-stress and consider, how can you comfort yourself without food? Could you take a bath, read a book, call a friend or go for a walk?
  • Delay eating an unplanned snack. Most cravings fade within 10-15 minutes. The temptation to give in to a craving becomes less frequent and progressively weaker when you outlast the urge.
  • Distract yourself by engaging in something that takes your mind off food. Fold the laundry, water the plants, do a craft or think about other ways that you can keep your hands busy.
  • Do the opposite of what your body is feeling. If you are physically exhausted, then choose something mentally relaxing such as listening to peaceful music. If you are mentally exhausted, choose something physical that will get your heart rate up such as a brisk walk.
  • Don’t fret if you decide to indulge, no one needs to strive for perfection. Don’t beat yourself up because you are human. Everyone eats for emotional reasons.
  • Distance yourself from your major comfort foods. Manage your environment by choosing not to stock your home or office with foods you find challenging. Make yourself work for your treats instead of having them stocked for easy access.
  • Decide how you can handle things better next time if you didn’t eat as well as planned. Be gentle with yourself and remind yourself change is a process, not an event.
  • Demand the delicious and delightful. As soon as you tell yourself you can’t eat certain foods, that will be what you crave. Give yourself flexible eating patterns that allow for some of your favourite treats while not giving in to all your cravings. Make the decision not to go on a restrictive diet. Instead, go for sensible, balanced eating that includes all foods.
Dietitian Andrea Holwegner, the Chocoholic Nutritionist, owns Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc. Visit www.healthstandnutrition.com or phone 403-262-3466 for nutrition counselling, speaking engagements and to subscribe to her free monthly ezine. Twitter: @chocoholicRD
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"I am a psychologist in private practice and it is very important to me that my clients have the best care with other health care professionals. For that reason Health Stand Nutrition is my only source for exceptional Dietitians. Andrea and her team provide highly knowledgeable, compassionate, and real world support to my clients who require assistance with food lifestyle. I trust my clients to them and you would be in excellent hands making them part of your health care team."
Adele Fox, Psychologist
“This is the first time I feel satisfied; my cravings have diminished dramatically and I have a whole new relationship with food. I am eating guilt-free for the first time in my life. My energy has also dramatically increased and I feel great!
Rhonda Jenkins, Nutrition Counseling Client
“The Dieticians at Health Stand Nutrition help you to take action on the science behind eating well by making it practical, understandable, and fun. Their office is cozy and not at all clinical or intimidating. I felt like I was sitting down with a really smart, caring friend who wanted to help me make the best choices for my lifestyle and food preferences. They really are the best in the business.”
Marty Avery, Nutrition Counseling Client
“I have come to think of the program as a one stop shopping excursion for everything one needs to know about creating a joyous relationship with food and our bodies. In a single word, the course has gifted me with freedom from the punishing rigidity of disordered eating, old stories that never were true, and body dysmorphia that did nothing but make me lose sight of a body that has done everything I've asked, despite my careless dismissal of her needs. Now when I look in the mirror I find myself shifting from harsh criticism to gentle gratitude.”
Lynn Haley, Pursuit of Healthiness Online Course Participant
“I spent 3 hours when first diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I learned more from my Dietitian about food in those 3 hours than I had learned in all the years of my life. I also love the newsletter, there is always something to learn.”
Peter Whitehead, Nutrition Counseling Client
“I didn’t realize how strong my “diet mentality” was, and all the rules I had in my head about food. I was in a cycle of reward/punish/binge/cringe. I booked with your business very reluctantly, on the repeated advice of my doctor, to get my slowly rising cholesterol levels in check. I thought I knew everything about food, and my behaviour with food, but I was definitely re-schooled. My weight is creeping down, I feel good about my diet, exercise, body image, and lifestyle.”
Amy Floyd, Nutrition Counseling Client
“Thanks Andrea for an amazing presentation, I have heard all positive remarks from attendees and the evaluations show the same sentiment. It is really gratifying when a speaker does their “homework” and weaves in our profession’s day to day challenges within their content, you did an awesome job of this! You truly took the “die” out of Dietician! Your information on healthy eating and simplifying how we can work towards this as we are all so busy really hit the mark. Andrea connects very well with her audience; she is energetic, funny, and very approachable.”
Carole Ann LaGrange, Transfusion Medicine Safety Officer

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I am a family physician who sees patients with a myriad of eating concerns – from wanting to know how to plan healthy meals for active families, to weight loss, to eating disorders, and so on. I cannot recommend the Health Stand team highly enough. I have worked with (and been to!) other Dieticians in the past and too often find that they just ask for food logs and make suggestions that are easily obtained online or in books. The Dieticians at Health Stand offer much more than just telling clients what they “should be eating.” In contrast, the team really does more of a counselling practice, and they work hard to help their clients learn more about why their eating habits may be off track and not optimal for them, as well as helping people to effect change at a deep level that, most importantly, is sustainable for lifetime health.”
Dr. Deb Putnam, Family Physician

Nutrition Counseling Client & Referring Physician

“I am a busy mom, with kids in high level sports, working full-time downtown, and running our home acreage outside the City. I now have the knowledge and tools I need to plan for and manage the chaos of meal planning.”
Gillian Gray, Pursuit of Healthiness Online Course Participant
“As a construction company, we select speakers who can relate to our industry and its employees. Andrea’s message was delivered with humor and empathy. She makes people feel as though they can make changes without leaving behind every favorite food. Andrea focused her presentation on healthy eating as a way to keep energy high throughout the day. This message and the way it was delivered resonated with our predominantly male, blue collar culture. I would highly recommend Andrea as a speaker for groups such as ours. She will get your message across without alienating anyone in your audience – which is a huge hurdle when trying to introduce a wellness program in the workplace!”
Stephanie Wood, HR and Safety Manager

Fisher Construction Group, Burlington, WA

I found my Dietitian warm, funny, and skilled at teaching nutrition concepts without the overwhelm. The general approach of each session was to mix science with emotion, which was exceedingly effective in helping me shift my perspective on food from one of anxiety to one of joy and curiosity.”
Erin Kronstedt, Nutrition Counseling Client
“Excellent presentation! What a refreshing change to have a speaker inspire rather than “lecture” about nutrition. Your captivating stories, tips and overall approach to healthy eating uplifts and puts people at ease. It was great to hear we don’t need to strive to be perfect eaters, and that small changes really can make a difference in how we feel and in our health. Thanks to Andrea, we have solutions to our everyday nutrition challenges that can actually work in real life!”
Tina Tamagi, Human Resources

ARC Resources Ltd.

“Had I not joined this course I would have struggled with no focus, low energy, and mindless eating. Excellent teaching and motivation. This is not just a course, it is a nutrition club with mentorship, support, and connections with other people with similar situations.”
Lorri Lawrence, Pursuit of Healthiness online course participant

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