Many people struggle with psychological hunger, also known as non-hungry eating, or emotional eating at the best of times. We can eat for so many reasons other than being physically hungry. Usually these reasons are based around an emotion such as boredom, stress, anxiety, or sadness. Sometimes we eat to celebrate or treat or reward ourselves, or to keep a positive mood going.

Since the escalation of COVID-19, we are spending increased amounts of time at home which for some is unprecedented. Additionally, you may be working from home and therefore be less physically active due to reduced opportunity for incidental exercise, or your commute to work or school might have involved walking or cycling. Many people attend gyms or fitness classes for exercise, which now are either closed or have moved online.

For some, this means they might be eating more and exercising less. For others, times of stress and change can decrease their appetite.

There has also been an increase in home baking, which is a great hobby, way to improve or learn a new skill, and also to share with others. The downside might be that there is increased access to foods you might normally limit. Combined with the desire to avoid food waste – there’s no time like the present to make sure that cake is polished off!

Additionally, whilst hoarding food has been discouraged you might find you have greater amounts of food at home in order to limit how frequently you are visiting shopping centres. Your work from home space might even be in the kitchen! Greater access to food at home might result in more of a “grazing pattern”, or eating at irregular times.

Here are some helpful tips to help you maintain “meal hygiene” and healthful eating habits during home isolation:

  • Try to follow your regular meal times
  • Be aware of portions, serving sizes, or serving / plates bowls
  • Plan your snacks for the day / week, and try to organise these into individual/single portions to avoid the temptation to finish off the whole packet of chips when you only intended to have a handful
  • Where possible, limit distractions while you eat. Many of us are great multitaskers and eat while reading, watching TV, or being online. Try to eat at the table or a spot in your house where there are limited other distractions, and a place that is not your ‘home office’ if possible. Eat mindfully; focus on the taste, colour, texture, smell, and temperature of your meal. Where did it come from? What does it feel like in your mouth? Eat slowly to remain aware of how full you might be getting
  • If you are baking or cooking more at home, consider doing smaller batches or finding healthier substitutes for ingredients. If you have the space, freeze what is left over. Serve up individual portions and sit down away from the pot or brownie tin, to make it harder to keep going back mindlessly.

Are you emotionally eating?

Emotional eating might look like eating at unplanned times and might involve consuming more or differently to what you planned to.

Physical hunger:

  • Increases gradually
  • Any food would suffice
  • Body will signal to you e.g., rumbling tummy, dry mouth, headache or ‘empty’ feeling, low energy etc. (These signals might differ from person to person, and based on how hungry you are.)
  • Sense of satisfaction after eating
  • Typically no to minimal guilt

Psychological hunger:

  • Appears suddenly
  • Might involve craving a certain type of food (e.g., sweet, salty etc.)
  • Sense of urgency and wanting it immediately
  • Might involve an impulsive choice and eating quickly
  • Might want more, or not be entirely satisfied
  • Potentially a sense of guilt, or not wanting to eat in that way again

If you find you are reaching for food to help soothe an emotion, pause and try to reflect on what the reason for your psychological hunger is by asking:

  • Am I really hungry or do I want to eat for some other reason?
  • Try to understand this reason or trigger for eating.
  • Are you frustrated by a work task and want a break?
  • Are you stressed and anxious and want to escape or relax?
  • Are you tired and having trouble concentrating, so want a pep up?

These are just some of the reasons why we might try to meet an emotional need with food.

Plan ahead. Once you know your triggers – make a list of alternative ways to feed your emotional hunger

Place some “cues” in your environment to help you pause and reflect on your eating behaviour or how hungry you are. This might be a sign on the fridge, pantry, or specific food item that says STOP or asks the question, “Do you want to eat because you are hungry or is this about an emotion?” If you are physically hungry at a snack time, try to match the portion or type of food to how hungry you are e.g., would a one musli bar do or do I need a full meal?

Remember, it is okay to eat when you are hungry and to have treat foods in moderation. You don’t have to be strict or hard on yourself when you might have some comfort food. Your body and mind are under stress and it is important to fuel yourself. However, be aware of other ways you can care for your body and mind through activities or seeking social support.

If you have lost your appetite due to stress, anxiety or feelings of isolation or depression, aim small. Try to have regular, small meals or snacks that are achievable. Remember to hydrate. If you feel well enough, gentle physical activity might help increase your appetite. Seek help from your GP if this does not return to normal.

If you are having trouble managing your eating habits on your own, a psychologist can help!

By Victoria Burrows, Health Psychologist