The Disturbing Truth about Emotional Eating

This heart is yours

On this page is a link to a free chart that spells out the differences between physical (real) hunger and emotional (bogus) hunger. A book* called Constant Craving, by Doreen Virtue, introduced the chart with these words:

Emotional and physical hunger can feel identical, unless you’ve learned to identify their distinguishing characteristics. The next time you feel voraciously hungry, look for these signals that your appetite may be based on emotions rather than true physical need. This awareness may head off an emotional overeating episode.

The chart asks a series of questions, and Elizabeth Arnott recommends making a printout to hang on the wall for daily consultation. (These days, the questions could also be programmed into a smartphone.) Every time a hunger pang strikes, the checklist would be right there.

“Did a huge hunger just show up all at once?” the checklist might ask, because sudden onset is said to be a sure sign of emotional hunger. On the other hand, physical hunger impinges on the awareness gradually, sending out “steadily progressive clues.”

“Do you desire a specific food?” would be another question. The more specific the craving, the more likely it is to be emotional hunger. “Do you feel guilty about eating?” is always an excellent question to ponder, because chances are, guilt is the mind admitting to itself that what is involved here is pure emotional hunger.

Another thing to watch out for is automatic, absent-minded eating. Eating should always be conscious, and any lapse into robotic behavior is a danger sign. And a very pertinent question is, “Do you ever feel full?” Because if you don’t, something is not functioning correctly, and you are eating emotionally in an attempt to fill a bottomless hole.

Another Facet of Comfort Eating

But there is more to it. This comes as a surprise to many people, who only think of comfort eating as a method of self-medication to compensate for something that is missing, or to mask and smother negative psychological states. No doubt some people are astonished to hear a deeper truth from someone who has been there.

Actor and comedian Jeff Garlin, known to many from the TV series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” reminisced in a recent interview (conducted by Marc Maron) about his days as a binge eater. His habit was to go to a favorite convenience store near a baseball stadium and “buy a bunch of crap and sit on the hood of my car by the left field wall, and just down it.”

Of course he realizes now, and probably did even then, that unhappy feelings can only be stuffed down temporarily, and as a result a person ends up feeling worse. But here is the surprise, in Garlin’s words:

It’s any feeling. It’s not bad feelings, it’s any feeling, anything you feel you want to shove down.

This obviously is much worse than a condition that only activates in response to unpleasant stimuli, and points the way to realization of how seriously debilitating emotional eating can be.

*“Constant Craving” was also the title of a 1992 k.d. lang song, which predated Virtue’s 1999 book.

Source: “Emotional Eating,”, 11/28/12
Source: “Episode 567 – Jeff Garlin,”, 01/12/15
Image by kyknoord

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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.
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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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