Do you find yourself eating too much or not enough and wonder why?

Eating too much or too little or too much of the wrong foods is an unhealthy behaviour. In this context the wrong food might mean the highly processed or very sugary food that isn’t great for any of us. Or it could mean any other food that your body struggles to digest leading to bloating, discomfort, excess gas or irregular bowel movements. This is not new information! We all know what we think a healthy diet looks like but it’s common to still find ourselves eating foods we don’t think we should. In our heads we know we would feel better if we made more healthy choices but that doesn’t always feel possible. The dieting and beauty industry will have you believe that what you eat is entirely down to will power and self control, but is that really it?

Start off with one simple question. Am I actually hungry? If the answer is no you might be eating based on an emotional trigger. Occasionally we all eat when we aren’t actually hungry but if it becomes a frequent habit it can have a big impact on our health.

Sometimes we reach for food because we’re trying to fill an emotional gap. These foods might be the “treaty” or “naughty” foods. Have you thought about the words we use for chocolate, biscuits, cakes, crisps and puddings? Why is food good or bad? There’s lots more we can say about balancing blood sugars and how to optimize your nutrition but that’s for another day.

Do you know the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger?

Physical hunger usually comes on gradually several hours after eating. It has physical aspects such as tummy grumbling and you feel better after food.

Emotional hunger can come on suddenly without physical signs. You might crave specific foods, but feel guilty for eating them and you probably don’t feel satisfied after eating. We might call this stress eating, emotional eating, comfort eating or boredom eating.

If you suspect you are being triggered to eat by an emotion you need to spend time or get help to understand what that emotion is. Are you bored, stressed, worried, anxious, sad, or you may be happy and want to celebrate with a “treat”!

If your stress is causing you not to eat that is also an unhealthy habit. Do you recognize any of these feelings?

  • you don’t think you have enough time to stop and make lunch
  • you don’t feel hungry because your emotions have stopped your digestive system triggering your brain to feel hungry
  • you’ve got such a knot in your stomach that the idea of eating makes you feel sick
  • You feel that many aspects of your life are out of your control and strictly regulating what food you do or don’t eat makes you feel more in control because something in your life is structured.

You may even find that you both over and under nourish yourself at different times depending on how your stress is affecting your body at any time.

So what can we do about it? 

You might like to try “Mindful eating” as a way to increase your awareness of what and how you eat but it might not fix the issue completely if you don’t also address the stress. You can check out these stress buster tips on the NHS website.

Longer term goals would include working out how to reward yourself without food – a long relaxing soak in the bath, a walk outside, watching some TV, reading a book, phoning a friend or cuddle your child (if they’re in the right mood!). Start by just changing the way you talk about the “treat cupboard” or whatever your equivalent is. If you eat those foods really enjoy them and embrace everything about the delicious flavours!

I treat patients who find stress is making them eat too much or too little by tracking back to find the root cause of the stress.  It may not be possible to change the life events that are causing stress but you can change your way of dealing with them. The Earth Element part of our physical body, the Stomach and Spleen, are responsible for digestion and processing food. The Spleen is also believed to help us process thoughts and ideas. If the Earth element is out of balance you may struggle with both the physical and the emotional aspects of this. This means Earth constitutional type patients (also called Constitutional Factor / CF) may be more prone to struggle with over or under eating because of stress but they are not the only ones. Here are some ways each constitutional type might be driven to different eating patterns when stressed:

A metal CF may be stressed about being good enough (at work, as a parent, in their relationships). They may struggle with perfectionist tendencies that they can’t maintain so generate huge amounts of stress as they attempt to over achieve in all aspects of their life.

A Wood CF may struggle if they are over scheduled or feel like they are not in control of their lives so feel permanently stressed.

Earth CFs may have eaten this way since childhood so they just think it’s who they are. That doesn’t need to be the case. They may also like to feed others as they associate eating with feeling better. Do you know someone who always encourages you to have seconds even when you’ve said you are full?

A Fire CF wants everyone to be happy so they may also bring treats to work for everyone or be constantly baking for their friends. They may not know how to help themselves feel less stressed so they constantly attempt to boost their mood with “treat” foods.

A Water CF may be stressed because they live in state of constant fear. They don’t know how to reassure themselves that they are safe so they continuously need to numb those feelings and food may be one way to do that.

Do you recognise any of these patterns in yourself or your family?

If you can work out what factors are causing your stress they can be addressed and your need for comfort eating or over controlling your food intake will subside. In treatment we use the acupuncture needles to rebalance the five elements in your body and calm your mind. With regular treatment, some lifestyle tweaks and a small amount of dietary advice your stress will gradually reduce. As your stress reduces so will you need to over or under eat. You will get better at spotting the warning signs and be able to focus on managing the stress instead of obsessing over whether you did or didn’t eat the “right” foods today. If you are already struggling with stress you don’t need to add that to your stress load!

I’ve been specializing in the treatment of stress and anxiety for 19 years. I’m passionate about helping people to find it easier to make better choices. If you would like support to work out why your eating habits change when you are stressed and to find space and time to manage your stress more effectively please book now for a free 20 minute consultation. I’ll be delighted to help you on your journey to better health.

July 12, 2023