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Emotional Hunger Games: Learn How to Eat to Win

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​There is a distinct difference between dieting and eating well. Chad Buck, Ph.D., Work-Life Connections clinician, identifies ways in which we play “games” with our eating habits and how different strategies can help us eat to “win.”

Begin Transcript

Janet McCutchen:     Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt University Health and Wellness Wellcast.  I am Janet McCutchen with Work/Life Connections.  Today, I have the pleasure of meeting with Chad Buck, my friend and colleague here at Work/Life Connections-EAP.  We know that many people struggle to eat well, which by its very nature that phrase is different from using the word diet, eating well, first of all, but we often engage in our own emotional hunger games when it comes to food.  So, I am going to ask you, if you would, please to talk a little bit about the difference between eating well and dieting and then let’s look at some strategies to improve eating habits.  Could you make that distinction for us first of all?

Chad Buck:              First with the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger, we will start with that.  With physical hunger, you have it come on gradually.  It is natural sort of feeling, and there is nothing specific that you necessarily have to have in order to fulfill the hunger.  With emotional hunger, it comes on really quickly and it is usually after something emotional has happened like you might be scared or upset, disappointed, and then you usually have a very specific type of thing that you want to have like you want pizza, you want ice cream, and with physical hunger, if you eat, you are usually satisfied and then you are done.  With emotional, you will eat beyond that feeling of fullness.  People sometimes eat to a point where they feel sick, and usually, if you are physically hunger and you eat something, you are not going to feel guilty because it had a reasonable explanation for why you are hungry, but with emotional eating, usually there is a lot of guilt and shame associated with it, and often, people will hide the fact that they are eating those foods.

Janet McCutchen:     Talk a little bit then about that the distinction between dieting and eating well.  It sounds like when we are focused on dieting, that tends to be involved with the guilt that we feel either about our appearance or how much we eat or maybe both whereas eating well is really a different approach to food, isn’t it?

Chad Buck:              Absolutely.  Dieting is usually about deprivation or restricting something or cutting out whole food groups almost.

Janet McCutchen:     And we know when we are eating well and focusing on being healthy that affects our psychological well-being.  When we want to improve those eating habits, when we want to focus on eating well, what are some of the hunger games we engage in?

Chad Buck:              The idea is that you have to deprive yourself for the most part, and so you play this game with yourself where it is like, “Well, I won’t eat this meal because later in the day I am going to have this food,” which somehow in our heads is going to justify eating that food later in the day.  When that food later in the day may have been fine, but what you set yourself up for is the game of I am not going to eat this.  You are starving by the end of the day. You overeat the other thing that you are having.  So, you are playing these games with yourself trying to bargain or make a tradeoff, and what you are really doing is setting yourself up actually to change up your metabolism to be probably honestly grumpy and frustrated and also just to not ever be satisfied.

Janet McCutchen:     That makes perfect sense.  So, by playing those games, we really are doing ourselves a disservice?

Chad Buck:              Absolutely.

Janet McCutchen:     So, what are some of the strategies we can implement in order to eat well?

Chad Buck:              One part is to try to manage your stress.  That is easier said than done, but trying to just recognize that stress does affect how you eat.  If you are sad, you are more likely to want ice cream or cake.  I mean that is just how we are built.  So, you want to be able to be more mindful and kind of check on your status before you are about to eat something.  So, let’s say, it has been a stressful day.  It may not be the time to try to run through the grocery store and make selections.  Now that you have to go to a grocery store because you have to have meals for the evening.  So, what you might do would be to do a deep breathing exercise in the car before you go into the grocery store.  So, what are usually tell people is to inhale through your nose for a count of five, hold it for a count of five, and then exhale through your mouth for a count of five and then do that five times.  But it is more just to try to calm yourself down.  The better you are at in terms of your breathing, the more likely you are going to be calm, and the calmer you are and the more centered you are, you are not going to make emotionally-based choices in the grocery store.

Janet McCutchen:     Makes perfect sense.  What about another strategy or two?

Chad Buck:              Another is to take an inventory of on scale of 1 to 10, “Am I physically hungry and how physically hungry am I?” with 10 being extremely hungry physically or to look at emotional hunger on scale of 1 to 10.  If you are more emotionally hungry in terms of “I just want this, I have to have it,” then you are physically hungry.  That is your key that you might need to do what is called delay, distract, and decide.  So, with delay, you delay.  So, you are not going to eat the food right at that moment.  You might focus on a book that you are reading or listen to a song on the radio, it is like 3 or 4 minutes, and then when are done decide what you want to do.  Do you want to still eat the food or do you want to maybe do some other activity?  It can help you control that desire to go and grab the chips or grab things that are not as healthy for you.

Janet McCutchen:     Excellent start with some great ideas about how to win those emotional hunger games, Chad, and if anyone listening, would like any further information or more support, we are always available.  Thanks so much for your time.  Thanks for listening.

Please feel free to leave us any comments on this Wellcast by clicking the “Add New Comment” link at the bottom of this page.  If you have a story or suggestion, please email it to us at or you can use the “Contact Us” link on our website at  Thanks for listening.

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Posted on Friday, March 21, 2014 in Wellcasts, Work/Life Connections and tagged ,


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