Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: "I want to lose weight, but I can't stop eating." If your hand is up, no judgment here — because you're definitely not alone.
So, what gives? The why behind this common complaint might surprise you. In most cases, if you can't stop eating when you're trying to lose weight, it's because your hunger is emotional or psychological rather than physical.
Fortunately, there are a lot of things you can do to get yourself back in tune with your body, so you can stop eating when you're full — and shed those unwanted pounds.
Physical vs. Emotional Hunger
If you have trouble controlling your eating, it's a good indication that you're noshing from a place of emotion rather than true, physical hunger.
What's the difference, exactly? Physical hunger is characterized by an empty feeling in the stomach and maybe some accompanying growling or rumbling to signal that the stomach's empty. "It's caused by a complex hormonal pathway between your brain and your gastrointestinal tract," explains Jaime Harper, MD, a board-certified obesity medicine specialist based in Indianapolis.
Physical hunger tends to come on slowly, and as it grows more intense, you'll usually feel open to eating a wide variety of foods — anything to make the hunger go away. If you're really hungry, you might also start to feel irritable or weak, says Candice Seti, PsyD, CNC, a weight-loss therapist and clinical nutritionist in San Diego.
Emotional "hunger" tends to come on suddenly, usually in response to an unpleasant feeling like stress, boredom, anxiety or loneliness. "Your body isn't actually hungry. It's looking for a surge of the feel-good hormone dopamine, which you can get from eating certain foods," Dr. Harper says. Namely? Processed carbs. "They tend to cause a greater release of dopamine, which is why most people crave them," she explains.
Emotional hunger is usually the culprit when you get hit with a craving for comfort food like pizza, cookies or chocolate — but the idea of eating healthier fare isn't very appealing.
Reconnect to Your Body
Experts agree that many of us have become disconnected from our true hunger signals. Near-constant access to crave-worthy snacks (looking at you, doughnuts in the break room) makes it easy for us to indulge in emotionally charged cravings anytime the mood strikes. Over time, that can make it harder to figure out whether you're actually hungry on a physical level.
"The hormones your brain releases to aid in digestion also promote feelings of relaxation," says Hannah Koschak, RD, a registered dietitian in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. "The more you eat emotionally and get that quick high, the more you get hit with cravings."
Although it takes practice, especially if you've been eating emotionally for years, you can reconnect with your body and tune in to your own hunger cues and signals by adopting something called mindful eating.
What Is Mindful Eating?
Mindfulness is a general term for bringing your awareness and attention to the present moment, instead of letting your brain wander off into distractions. Mindful eating brings this concept to food by helping you to become aware of your body's sensations and your thoughts surrounding food — both before you decide to eat and while you're eating.
When you eat mindfully, you check in with your body before you start noshing to decide whether you're truly hungry. If you opt to eat, you enjoy your food until you notice that your body is satisfied. The point is to give your body what it really needs and savor your food without worrying about limiting or restricting yourself, according to experts at The Center for Mindful Eating. And it can make a big difference: People who engage in mindful eating tend to eat less, choose healthier foods and feel more appreciative of the food they have, according to an August study in Diabetes Spectrum.
And though weight loss isn't always the main goal, being more mindful just might help you drop some pounds by reducing food cravings, according to a March 2018 review in Current Obesity Reports.
Keep a Food Journal
One of the best ways to get started with mindful eating is by keeping a mindfulness-based food journal. In addition to recording the types and amounts of foods you consume at each meal and snack, this type of journal also records how you felt before, during and after eating. "It helps identify trigger foods, especially the ones you might eat habitually for no real reason," says Koschak. Think: The candy you reach for every time things get hectic at work, or the handful of cereal you grab when you walk in the kitchen after work just because the box is sitting out on the counter.
Here's how to do it: For two weeks, write down everything you eat and when. In addition to this, write down how you were feeling at the time. Did you reach for a bag of chips because you were bored while you were watching TV? Did you get into a fight with your spouse and then find yourself reaching into the cookie jar shortly after? The purpose of tracking your food intake and your emotions together is to figure out what your emotional eating triggers are. You can also note how you felt after you finished eating — how full you were and what kinds of emotions you experienced, Koschak says.
Once you've ID'ed your emotional eating triggers, make a plan to stay ahead of them. If you usually watch TV after dinner and snack on chips, skip the TV and go for a walk instead. If fighting with your spouse drives you to eat, make a plan to call a friend after an argument instead. (Pro tip: You don't have to go into detail about the argument; the point is to distract you from emotional eating.) Similarly, if you notice that you tend to overeat a certain food or that eating it tends to make you feel lousy, you can strategize how to keep your portions in check or make a healthier choice.
How to Start Mindful Eating
Now that you're familiar with your emotional eating triggers, it's time to put the concepts of mindful eating into practice. When you get the urge to eat, start by asking yourself a few questions to figure out whether you're truly hungry or just want to eat in response to a certain emotion. "I encourage my patients to just pause before grabbing a snack and ask themselves why they're eating," Dr. Harper says. "If the answer is emotional, I ask that they walk away. If they're still hungry 20 minutes later, then their body likely needs food and they should make a healthy choice."
If you're having trouble figuring it out, considering these questions can help:
- When was the last time I ate? Did I just finish a meal and now I want something sweet, or has it been a while since I've eaten?
- Does my stomach feel empty or full? Is the urge to eat coming from my stomach or my brain?
- Am I experiencing any uncomfortable emotions that are bringing on an urge to eat, or do I feel emotionally stable?
- Would a healthy meal like chicken and broccoli satisfy me right now, or am I craving something specific, like pizza and ice cream, to fill an emotional void?
In simple terms, mindful eating involves truly paying attention to the food that's in front of you. This can be tough to do at first, but the more you practice, the better you'll get. And over time, you'll find that regularly eating mindfully might help you stop overeating, so that you can lose weight. To practice this concept successfully, Seti recommends the following guidelines.
Get rid of distractions. Sit down at the table and eat without things that can steal your attention — like your phone, the computer or the TV. "This allows you to be mentally present at mealtime and get the most out of your food," Seti says.
Slow your pace. Try to stretch your meal out to 20 or 30 minutes, taking time to chew thoroughly and pausing in between bites to put down your fork. You'll give yourself a chance to notice when you're satisfied (instead of stuffed). And you'll probably enjoy your meal more too.
Explore the sensations of your food. Take some time to examine what you're eating using all of your senses. "How does it smell? What does it look like? What textures do you feel on your tongue? What are the flavors like?" Seti recommends.
Check in during your meal. Take a break every few minutes to check in with your body and see how hungry (or full) you are. "Let your check-in determine whether to keep eating or save the rest for later," Seti says.
Practice gratitude. Simply taking the time to appreciate what you're eating can help you build a healthier relationship with food.
So, the next time you think, "I really want to lose weight, but I have no willpower," check in with your body and see how you can incorporate mindful eating into your daily habits. If you feel like you've covered all the bases and you still can't stop eating, a professional such as a registered dietitian or a mental health expert trained in coping skills for emotional eating may be able to help.