Heart Hunger Not Satisfied by Junk Food

Moment to Oneself

Linda Spangle, R.N., is an expert on heart hunger, the emptiness that leads to emotional eating, which is pretty much the same as comfort eating. Her website, Weight Loss Café, offers several helpful articles about emotional eating. Today we’re looking at one called “When Your Heart is Hungry.” It offers several concrete suggestions for the weight-conscious. We’ll get to one of them in a minute, but first, have you ever really thought about what it means to have a yen for a certain food? When the body actually needs nutrition, it often gives us a signal, which we experience as a craving. Not all food cravings are for junk food. Some arise from the organism’s wish for a specific nutrient.

If the picture in your mind is of an egg-salad sandwich, chances are your body is feeling the need for some protein right about now. If the vision is of a tall glass of orange juice, your cells are calling out for Vitamin C. There’s nothing wrong with that. Food cravings in themselves are not evil, but instinctual, and when working correctly, what we call a craving is a finely-tuned mechanism provided by nature to help us be well nourished. The ability to sense what the body needs, and to seek out a food that provides a certain vitamin or mineral, is no big deal. Animals can do that.

Unfortunately, the craving mechanism can also become subverted and perverted, attaching itself to inappropriate and harmful substances, present in some food-like objects, which are literally addictive for some people. Either way, it’s a pretty sure bet that a craving for a specific food, or food-impersonating substance, whether healthful or detrimental, originates from the body. Okay, now here’s where Spangle’s brilliant insight comes into play. Listen up: It’s emotional eating if

… [Y]ou don’t usually get a specific food craving — you just start thinking about eating… You just know you want ‘something.’

There it is in a very small nutshell. As you head for the kitchen, with a vague notion of ingesting “something,” that’s the heart talking and not the stomach. This is the time to absolutely quell a craving, and there are plenty of suggestions here about what to do instead. Spangle also has several books to her credit, and what an enticing title this latest one has: Life is Hard, Food is Easy.

The basic thing to remember is: a non-specific yearning to be fed is the Big Red Flag. It means something, and what it means is, the void that needs to be filled is an emotional one. Whether you are aware of it or not, some emotion is running your show: depression, loneliness, discouragement, boredom, restlessness, rejection, disappointment — you get the picture.

Has Dr. Pretlow queried his young audience about emotional eating? You bet he has, via the Weigh2Rock website, and guess what?

37 [percent] explicitly say that they seek comfort from food when depressed, sad, rejected, disappointed, angry, lonely, or anxious.

Amazing, eh? Kids are a lot like grownups! Sometimes they use food as an emotional crutch. Sometimes they graze all day, eating so often that they never know the experience of physical hunger, but are overwhelmed with emotional hunger, and even spiritual hunger. And — this comes as no surprise — they can be fully aware that their eating is emotionally driven, and even recognize their own addictive behavior, and still be unable to stop.

In another poll, Dr. Pretlow ascertained that nearly all the respondents found emotional eating to be sometimes or mostly the cause of childhood and teenage obesity. To the stark question, “Do you think that you eat for emotional reasons?” 61 percent had answered with a stark “yes.”

Overweight: What Kids Say includes success stories from kids who have learned to say “no” to comfort eating, and a personal anecdote shared by Dr. Pretlow. On mature reflection, when he looked back on it later from an adult perspective, this was apparently was one of those “Aha!” moments that encapsulate an entire area of understanding in a brief vignette. It involves a Little League game where he did not shine, and his mom saying,

It’s okay, we’ll go get ice cream — that’ll make you feel better.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “When Your Heart is Hungry,” Weight Loss Café
Source: “Overweight: What Kids Say,” Amazon.com
Image by stephmcg, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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