Hunger vs. Emotional Appetite

We humans are complicated creatures, and we eat for all kinds of reasons not associated with hunger: happiness, sadness, boredom, excitement, stress, exhaustion, dehydration. Some people are very focused on eating fuel for their workouts. Others (like me!) might simply enjoy the pleasurable taste of their favorite foods.

One of the great gifts of eating paleo is that it’s easier to identify when I’m eating from true hunger or when I’m eating because of an emotional trigger. It’s important for all of us to learn to listen to our bodies’ true hunger signals, so we can say “no” when our brains want us to pander to an emotion-induced craving.

It’s important to remember that food cannot permanently change our emotional state. Sure, eating something might provide a momentary distraction and fleeting pleasure.

But whatever emotion we’re facing – happiness, frustration, anger, fear, worry, excitement, boredom – will continue to exist after we’ve eaten. In many cases, depending on what and how much we eat, we could actually worsen our emotional state. Food itself cannot be a permanent balm for our feelings.

The exception to this rule, of course, is if we’re eating because of true hunger.

So the trick is to learn the difference between emotional appetite and true hunger, and to feed real hunger with paleo foods. Our emotions want our attention, too, so it’s also essential to feed our emotional appetite with something other than food to deal with those tricky feelings.

This kind of mindful eating can be challenging at first. The key is to be as present as possible. Take a breath, consciously slow down, and be honest with yourself about the physical and mental signals your body is sending. Here are some tips to help you learn how to manage emotional eating and true hunger.


If it’s emotional appetite…

Ban all non-paleo foods from your kitchen.

Eventually, it would be wonderful if you learned to circumvent emotional eating. But the first approach is a practical one: Don’t keep non-paleo foods in the house. That way, if your emotions do overwhelm you and trigger a bout of overeating, you’ll only have paleo-friendly foods on hand to consume, thus minimizing the damage (if not the calorie consumption).
Drink a glass of water.

Sometimes our bodies confuse thirst with hunger, and sometimes, we just need a distraction to physically slow us down. Simply drinking a glass of water can help you become present and consciously think about what you’re doing. This short breather can help you determine if you need to eat because you’re truly hungry, or if you just want to eat.

Be stubborn.

This is my specialty! I’ve been described as dedicated and determined, but who are we kidding? I am stubborn. I challenge you to be the same. Remember that you’ve deliberately decided to make your physical and mental health a priority. Be relentless in that commitment. (And then later, you can revel in the accomplishment!)

Set a 20-minute timer.

Twenty minutes is kind of a magic number. When cravings strike, set a timer for 20 minutes and challenge yourself to avoid eating anything until the timer rings. In that 20 minutes, explore your physical and mental state. If you’re truly hungry at the end of the 20 minutes, eat a paleo meal or snack. If you’re not physically hungry, odds are good that by the end of that 20 minutes, your craving will most likely have passed. (The 20-minute rule is also a good one for determining if you really need seconds during
a meal, too. Before hitting the kitchen to refill your plate, wait 20 minutes. That’s how long it takes for the “I’m full” message to reach your brain. If you wait and you’re still unsatisfied, add another small serving to your plate and dig in.)

Set kitchen hours and stick to them.

This mental trick has prevented me from eating an entire jar of coconut butter with a spoon on many occasions. My kitchen hours are 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly snacky, I even say out loud, “It’s 8:00. Kitchen’s closed.” You really can outwit your emotional appetite with this simple declaration.

Enlist an ally.

Misery loves company. Wait! That’s not what I mean! There’s strength in numbers. Make a deal with a family member, neighbor, online friend, or another comrade to commiserate with you. The simple act of talking about your cravings with another human can help you analyze if you’re hungry or trying to eat your feelings.

If you’re truly hungry…

If you determine that you really are hungry, and you’re ready to load up your plate with paleo goodness, here are a few healthy habits to ensure that you feel satisfied at the end of your meal.

Eat at the table.

There is something celebratory and decadent about grabbing a snack straight out of the cabinet or eating a bite of leftovers while your hip props open the refrigerator door. But that’s not the most beneficial approach to feeding your body. One of the best tools you have in your arsenal is your brain. Use it to approach your meals with mindfulness. That means you eat your food from
a plate or bowl. At a table. With utensils. (Unless you’re eating Plantain Nachos, p. 146 or Vietnamese Chicken Salad, p. 162.) You don’t need a formal dining room or heirloom china, but the act of slowing down to eat in a place dedicated to meals puts you in the right mindset to consciously enjoy your food. The simple act of sitting down to a meal sends a message that says, “We’re eating now,” so that all of your senses can play along in the act of nourishing your body.

Eliminate electronics.

Sure, you can type and flip channels with one hand, while shoveling food into your mouth with the other, but that’s a terrible idea. Studies prove that we eat far more when we’re distracted by the television or computer while eating – and afterward, we feel less satisfied. The entertainment on those insidious blue screens doesn’t permit you to turn your full attention to the food you’re eating, and you mindlessly consume extra calories that leave you feeling unsatisfied. Eat first, watch later.

Eat slowly, chew well.

My parents were sticklers for good table manners, so my brother and I were frequently instructed to put our forks down between bites and to chew our food very well – with our mouths closed, naturally. As it turns out, that’s not just good manners, it’s good health, too. Research shows that digestion and satiation are improved when food is well-chewed before being swallowed. And the act of placing your fork on the rim of your plate between bites ensures that you won’t shovel it in too quickly — all the better to savor every bite.

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  • Brilliant post, Mel. You’ve really captured the psychological essence of the program – the big picture stuff that folks often miss when they are SO focused on the technicalities and the rules.

    After you’ve been eating good food (a la Whole30) for a while, you can learn to trust your body’s natural regulatory systems (like hunger mechanism) again. However, there will always be times when your hormones or emotions override all, and send you signals that just aren’t true.

    I like the HALT approach – Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. Used commonly throughout addiction treatment programs, it also works surprisingly well for those of us who simply struggle from time to time with emotional eating. Before embarking on that fridge or cabinet-raid, ask yourself, “Am I REALLY hungry, or am I just angry/lonely/tired?” (I’ll add “bored” to that list as well.)

    Taking the time to really evaluate our feelings and get in touch with our emotions using this helpful little catch phrase can save us the guilt of “binging” when we don’t REALLY want to – even if the food is healthy.

    Because in the case of those eating Whole30, Whole9 or dino-chow, it’s not the FOOD that makes us feel guilty, it’s the act of eating mindlessly and without control that pulls the trigger.


  • Misty Nikula says:

    Great perspective, Mel! I love that you recognize that there are times, like a wonderful vacation, to enjoy eating non-clean foods and rather than feel guilty or beat yourself up about it, you just notice that they don’t make you feel as great as eating cleanly. 🙂 I really like your helpful hints, as well. I think that I get into a routine of eating “because it’s time to eat” – and I wonder how eating on a deserted island with no clock (and lots of clean food) would be for me….

  • Laura Lee says:

    Great tips! Sometimes it’s truly only water I need. When thirsty I start craving all sorts of really, really bad-ish things and force my daughter to “get [paleo] baking!”

    I love HALT too!

  • Jude says:

    Welcome back! Your trip looked perfect, I loved the updates and happy snaps of you and Dave.

    I used to be a HUUUUUGE emotional eater. Any emotion, other than “neutral” prompted a celebratory or morale boosting snack.

    I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I’m cured now, but certainly cutting out all sugar and eating more fat has helped a lot.

    I figure my emotional eating is all down to my inner sugar whore, and as long as I don’t give her anything to eat, she’s too weak to make a fuss.

    or something.

    I’m very scientific, doncha know.


  • Allie says:

    I just ate a CUPCAKE because I’m stressed out. Not okay.

    Living with 3 roommates who are constantly pressuring me to eat what they eat-which is NOT paleo-really puts my will power to the test. Sometimes I need to just recede to my room and pretend that the food that just passed under my nose does not exist. The more times I walk by, the harder it gets to say no.

    I love the “kitchen is closed” statement! What also helps me is rereading the “This is not hard!” pep talk on the Whole30 site. Saying no is so easy for me in other areas like alcohol and drugs, and I need to bring that same mindset to the food game. Non-paleo foods are poisonous addictives, and that is that.

    Just Say No, Above the Influence…all that jazz. We can do it!

  • Lauren says:

    Thanks for finally making this a post! I had emailed you a while back about living a teacher’s lifestyle and keeping emotional eating in check. I’m not a full time teacher anymore, but still teach a couple times a week and I’m surrounded by more unhealthy temptations than before. I also started a new job which comes along with a whole sack of emotions. I plan on reading this at least a dozen more times. Thank you again.

  • Meghan E. says:

    I JUST posted on Melissa’s FB wall about the physical action of eating vs the mental aspect of eating. The mental thing is the hardest part for me– gotta keep being mindful of my eating, otherwise I’ll mindlessly slap on some pre-prepared egg salad on my yummy salad plate just because the hard boiled eggs are all gone. NO. Gotta be mindful about what goes in my body.

    Welcome back to sanity, Mel. 😉

  • Lydia says:

    I’m definitely (and unfortunately) an emotional eater, too. Like Jude, I don’t know that I’ll ever be 100% over it, but eating clean sure helps. My worst trigger is tiredness. I have health issues that make me feel tired most of the time, and once I let myself fall into a slump, the cravings soon follow.

    I’m starting a Whole30 today in solidarity with a local friend who is trying to get her eating issues under control. Here’s to thirty days of eating right, sleeping right, and feeling a little bit better every day!

  • Andrea says:

    I love your blog and have been reading it for a while so I know what you mean about emotional eating. I had the same kind of issues. I started a leptin reset per Jack Kruse and it really has changed the emotional eating. I thought it was nice when people went paleo and said they didn’t crave bad food anymore. Great for you, not happening for me. But doing the reset and specifically eating 50g of protein for breakfast ASAP has definitely changed emotional eating in a way that just Whole30/clean paleo hadn’t. I still like to think about melting 30 Reese’s peanut butter cups into a sauce to pour over, well, anything. But there’s no yearning behind it. And, I seem to deal with stress in a way that doesn’t make me first think, “sugar/bacon/wine will solve this!”
    So, all of the above, and maybe try having a 3/4lb grass-fed burger for breakfast for a few days and see how it works.

  • Chowstalker says:

    Welcome home Mel! Has Smudge forgiven you for being gone so long? I’m so glad you were able to enjoy your trip and not struggle with digestive issues, but I SO understand the crankiness that follows.

    Excellent post and comments as well. I stick pretty close to the Whole30 rule as far as what’s in the house and that is a big help for me b/c we rarely eat out. Drinking water always helps, but it is something I struggle with remembering to do for some reason.

  • Walker says:

    “YOU don’t want that food, the emotion does”

    very powerful stuff, thank you thank you thank you!

    Used to work for tony robbins and he had a theory about 6 human needs. Long story short, I realized that I often indulge in behaviors to meet the need for Significance (and perhaps Love/connection). I make myself feel loved and important by “treating” myself. It was a useful exercise to write out a bunch of other ways I could meet this need (recognizing the need would always exist). For example, I could treat myself with a pedicure instead of a brownie 🙂

  • Robyn F says:

    WOW!!! Most of this really hits home. I am such a bored and emotional eater. For the last 2-3 weeks I have been trying the water “trick”. It really does help. Night is the worst time for me. A lot of times when I feel like eating “just because”. I go to bed. That really does help. Thanks for the tips! I am going to print them and hang them on the fridge, the bathroom mirror, my desk station at work. Reminders always help.

  • April says:

    I love this post! Like so many I also struggle with emotional eating. One thing that I’ve found that works well for me is to drink tea- my favorite is Harney and Sons Hot Cinnamon Spice- It’s made with cinnamon, sweet cloves, and orange peel and it’s delicious! Having a cup of that will help keep sugar cravings at bay (plus cinnamon helps stabalize blood sugar!)

  • LOVE this post, lady! I’m a reformed (for the most part) emotional eater and most (or all) or my nutrition coaching clients are emotional eaters.

    I usually find myself standing in front of the fridge when I’m bored…or when I feel a little defeated.

    I actually use a lot of your tips! Especially the “meditate, dance, cry…” When I have cravings, or I’m emotionally hungry, I know that it’s my body’s way of asking for something–a hug, some stimulation…Most times I can figure out what I need and satisfy the craving in a non-food way, but sometimes I just have to eat, because if I don’t, I find myself in that negative dieting-mentality-cycle (I’m depriving myself of food). It gets complicated.

    Thanks so much for sharing this!

  • Mel says:

    Thank you for all your thoughtful comments, everyone! I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few days as I make the final transition from vacation eating to real life eating.

    I’ve been trying NOT to put a line in the sand and say I’m doing a Whole30, but I find myself mindlessly eating stuff I know I don’t REALLY want: a mini peanut butter cup yesterday, a handful of nuts that disappeared into my mouth before I knew what I was doing.

    Saying out loud, “I’m doing a Whole30” helps me slow down and think before I consume, so today is my Day 1 of what I’m thinking of as a mellow Whole30. I’m just going to do it with no fuss, no muss. And I’m super excited to make a completely compliant Thanksgiving dinner.

    Thanks so much for being my sounding board and sharing your experiences.

  • Marcy says:

    Relating much more to the introduction to this post than the heart of it, I get crazier when I eat grains.

    It doesn’t cause any digestive distress, but the next day (or two or three) I am a little more ‘sensitive’ to everything.

    I have mental illness in the family, so talk about motivation to avoid grains! Unfortunately it took me a long time to make the connection, so that’s why I’m ‘sharing’ here.

    • Mel says:

      Have you read Primal Body, Primal Mind? Nora G. talks a lot about the relationship between grains/gluten and mental illness. So glad you know now that grains can make you feel poorly.

      • Marcy says:

        I saw Nora personally! I did read her book, but it clicked for me when I read about someone else’s mental illness ‘acting up’ when she ate grains. In her case it was OCD. I tend toward anxiety/depression. Somehow knowing there’s a semi-external cause makes me feel less crazy. I guess because I know it will pass if I stay on my healthy eating path.

  • Meagan says:

    Kitchen closed – cute idea! I bet it works!!

  • Mel, so appreciate this post. Clear and practical!

    I want to add to what you’ve shared by offering the perspective that difficult emotions don’t have to be a problem — they can be a doorway into healing and freedom at a level we might not even know is possible. I get it. Most of us are so established in patterns of avoidance of the unpleasant emotions: our culture has trained us in fear of strong emotions, our biology inclines us toward avoidance of the unpleasant or frightening, and a culture of convenience makes it ridiculously easy to find 100 things to distract ourselves with, and food fits the bill beautifully!

    But what I am beginning to get is that every emotion just wants to be acknowledged, welcomed, and loved. Really! If we train ourselves to bring loving attention and acceptance to the feelings and sensations coming up RIGHT NOW, and just keep doing that, the stuck emotions and emotional patterns get to rise to the surface and then MOVE ON. And we eventually become much healthier on all levels, not just the physical.

    To me health is about unimpeded Flow. Eating Paleo is allowing my physical body to clear the obstructions to that flow so that a greater and greater quality of well-being becomes possible. I want that flow emotionally too. The hardest emotions for me are the stagnant ones — the ones that open the door to a whole room of unfelt, denied, ignored, or rejected emotions. It’s taking me some time to clear out those rooms, but the clearer they get the more uncommonly the old stuck, gummy, dark emotions arise. Choosing to stop indulging my habits of emotional eating has brought a lot of that business to the surface. This is a good thing! It helps me so much to remember that and reframe it. “Oh, awesome! There’s that crap mood or feeling again. Excellent. This time I get to allow it, embrace it and love it, or at least go make faces at it in the mirror. I’m on the right track and progressing every minute. Yay me!”

    Hope this is helpful for some.

    Thanks again, Mel. So glad to have discovered you!

    • Mel says:

      Lauren, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. You helped me realize something… in the last two years, I’ve really started EXPERIENCING my emotions. I’ve always been “moody” and “in touch with my feelings,” but I didn’t always acknowledge and experience my real feelings. I put on a brave face, I ate, I did all kinds of avoidance behaviors. Around the time I really embraced paleo, I also started respecting and experiencing my emotions… and that’s when it became much easier to identify hunger and emotional appetite.

      So thank you for writing because you helped me realize a big change in myself.

  • Hey Mel, so glad to hear this! I am fascinated with this whole process of behavioral change and all the inner and outer transformations that can happen once we get aligned with nature and our bodies’ needs, physical and emotional.

    What you say is so powerful — we can respect and experience our emotions — and this is really just another aspect of trusting and aligning with the incredible design of our bodies and minds. All the good stuff that happens when we start respecting the physical body’s design and needs is similar to all the good stuff that happens when we start to trust and honor the emotional body too. It knows how to be healthy! We just have to get out of the way with all the repressing or fixating that we do.

    Thanks so much for your response =)

  • Mel says:

    Thank YOU. The psychological/emotional side of training and nutrition is most interesting to me, and I’m so glad to have you join the conversation.

  • Tianna says:

    Hunger and boredom are the devil. I have a 90 minute commute home from work and by the time I get off the bus I’m growling and hissing my way to the fridge, only to find myself face first in a slab of black forest cake or corn chips and salsa. This is usually after eating perfect all day. I need to plan my eating better. As for boredom, I’ve got a package of knitting and crochet supplies coming my way to keep my hands busy on my days off. My goal is to have a tacky light up sweater by Christmas. With tassels.

  • Maggie says:

    I just wanted to say thank you for this post. This week for some reason that I can’t quite figure out has been marked by binging and emotional eating in a way I haven’t experienced since going Paleo 18+ months ago. I know I need to get to the root of whatever is weighing on me mentally, but as I try to figure that out I really needed something, words of wisdom or advice, to help get me out of the hole that I’ve been eating myself into. It truly is about more than my pants feeling snug, or “guilt” over enjoying a treat — I hate feeling out of control. Anyway, thank you for this — it was exactly the pep talk I needed to move forward.

    • Mel says:

      Hey, Maggie! I’m really glad you found this post helpful, and I’m sorry you’re having a bumpy time right now. Be good to yourself — and patient with yourself — and I’m sure you’ll figure out what’s going on. Maybe try meditating to just ‘be’ with your emotions and see what comes up.

      Keep us posted on how you’re doing… I’ll be thinking of you.