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.
Read more: 10 Ways to Break Up With Emotional Eating for Good
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.
Read more: The Benefits of Intuitive Eating and 10 Steps to Get Started