As you know, I lived in a diet mentality and dealt with an eating disorder for 10 years, and it was a real fucking ordeal.
Every day for a decade, my mind was consumed by the thought of food, calories, weight, and the way I looked. The insecurity, self-doubt, depression, shame, loneliness, and hunger, both physical and emotional.
It screws with you.
When your first and last thought of the day is what you ate, what you didn't eat, or whether you should eat at all for that extended period of time, it’s damn near impossible to know peace, joy, freedom, love, or happiness.
It’s a self-inflicted food prison with no window to the outside.
As a type-A personality by nature, my fixation and obsession with food was magnified. It took me out of life and made me a passenger in a self-driving car headed through a tunnel with no light at the end. It was isolating, and it wasn't any fun. And this girl likes to have fun.
I didn't know how to eat without feeling guilty. The only way I dealt with my emotions was either to eat so much that I would be in pain and throw up or to starve myself until I barely had the energy to use the bathroom. I coin-tossed between the two like it was a sport. And every new diet book that hit the market was my next team sponsor. I would tell myself that "this diet will be the one that works. It will finally end my abusive relationship with food."
But I'll let you in on a little secret: diets don't work. They will never, ever, lead to a healthy relationship with food.
As you can imagine, I didn't know how to feel emotionally full or physically full. To be honest, I didn't realize there was even a difference, but I now know it's pivotal to discover how to satisfy yourself emotionally and physically if you are dealing with any kind of unhealthy relationship with food, not just a full-blown eating disorder.
The distinction is life-changing, especially if you are a yo-yo dieter, restrict-binge cycler, emotional eater, or, in general, dealing with some kind of disordered eating.
Physical vs. Emotional Hunger
To understand how to be emotionally and physically full we must understand the difference between being emotionally hungry and physically hungry.
Physical Hunger is something that comes on gradually and occurs approx. 3-5 hours after having a balanced meal. You know you are physically hungry if your stomach feels empty, is growling or rumbling, or you are feeling tired.
We all know what true hunger feels like.
Sometimes, depending on your individuality and how long it has been since you have eaten, you might feel a little light-headed, have a headache, or be irritable. I become a bit of a bitch if my blood sugar gets too low, hangry, as they say.
When we do eat, slowing down can be really helpful in sensing levels of hunger and fullness. Meaning actually slowing down enough to enjoy each bite of food. That can be especially difficult, though, if you have been a chronic dieter for years. And I am assuming, if you're reading this, you have been.
Over time, as we restrict and binge, we can become numb to our natural hunger and satiety signals. If diets have caused you not to honor internal hunger knocks at the door, then the body might stop knocking. This often leads to emotional eating becoming our primary coping mechanism because we start to eat as a response to other stimuli like stress, sadness, intense feelings of restriction, boredom, and overwhelm.
What is Emotional Hunger?
It is the hunger for comfort and stems from the desire to meet some emotional need.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to have our emotional needs met. In fact, it's essential to living a happy and fulfilling life.
Emotional hunger can also occur if we do not allow ourselves to eat foods that we actually want, so we never truly feel satisfied. If you really want to have tacos but are "on a diet," so you eat a salad, it is highly unlikely that you will get the same satisfaction from the meal physically or mentally, which can lead to overeating (more on that here).
And if that salad was not balanced from a macronutrient standpoint, buckle up because you are about to get on a hunger hormone rollercoaster ride that’s headed straight for bingesville.
Look, I'm not shitting on salads, you guys know I love salads. And please don't get me wrong. Occasionally, using food as a reward, to celebrate, or to soothe feelings isn't a bad thing in and of itself.
Cake on birthdays and wedding days, drinks on a Friday after final exams, or a big work deadline are all good and part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
But using eating as the *primary* coping mechanism for the shit you are dealing with.... if your first response to anger, frustration, sadness, and stress is to hit the fridge or the drive-thru, then you might get stuck on the unhealthy hamster wheel of emotional binge eating and chronic yo-yo dieting.
This isn't just emotionally draining. It's taxing on your overall health and well-being.
And the worst part is the real feelings or problems don't get addressed.
So what do you do about it?
You have to figure out how to satisfy your physical and emotional hunger without adding layers of guilt and shame with every bite of food.
This is a huge part of what I do with my coaching clients. And it looks a little different for everyone.
How to Become Physically and Emotionally Full
Let's start with physical fullness because it is damn near impossible to work on our emotional needs with an empty stomach.
Connecting to our biological signals of hunger and satiety is a two-step process. It involves listening to our bodies and making sure our nutritional needs are met. This is really hard after years of letting diets or the clock tell you when and what to eat, but not impossible. You have to trust the process.
The standard advice I give to almost all my clients is this:
Start eating a protein-rich breakfast, and if you are already eating a breakfast, increase the amount of food. *Most* binge eaters I've worked with eat very little in the morning and then binge eat all the things at night.
Slow down while you are eating. Pay attention to the food, the taste, smell, texture, and so on.
Increase the variety of foods you are eating. If you've been trying to eat "low fat," increase the fat by adding oil, avocados, nuts, or cheese. If you've been trying to eat "low carb," add some toast, rice, pasta, or fruit.
Try to eat three adequate meals a day. This helps to balance your blood sugar, your mood, and your "hungry brain" that's always thinking about food.
Give yourself permission to eat all types of food. Allow dessert, allow carbs, or allow fat.
When meeting your physical hunger you need enough nutrient-rich food plus some fun foods (free from shame and guilt). While making these behavior changes to help with physical hunger, you have to also make mindset changes and work to free yourself from The Diet Mentality as well. (More on that here).
On to the more challenging one - Emotional Fullness
Eating enough food and allowing ourselves to eat the foods we want without guilt, shame, or "trying to make up for it later" is key to no longer binge eating. But for most people I've worked with, it's only half the battle.
Dieting and binge eating are fundamentally coping mechanisms. They're an attempt to address the discomfort we feel in our lives.
Trying to control food to control our weight is an attempt to deal with living in a world that is obsessed with thinness and equates it to health, morality, value, worth, and status.
This makes us project the weight of our problems onto the weight of our bodies. If we have anxiety, stress, trauma, feelings of inadequacy, and so on, we make our body the problem because that seems easier to fix than having to address our internal emotional worlds.
We've all been taught to numb our emotions with food, dieting, and restriction. We've been taught to believe that losing weight and being smaller will solve our problems and protect us from experiencing discomfort.
And while some things might be solved by losing weight, there is no version of life, no matter your size, that's free from difficult experiences, emotions, or pain.
The only way to truly solve your emotional hunger is to address your internal emotional world head-on.
This means exploring your past experiences (trauma, inner child wounds), your beliefs about yourself and your body, the stories you tell yourself about the world and your place in it, how you talk to yourself, and how you take care of yourself - and working through all of that to the other side.
Emotional fullness is an inside job.
Binge Eating Recovery Resources
To learn more about the non-diet approach to healing your relationship with food, check out my free video training series HERE.