In the previous posts we reviewed how to honor your hunger and tune into fullness for performance, but now you may be thinking…what about the times I want to eat in absence of physical hunger? In this post, we’ll talk about how to handle emotional hunger, create a self-care toolbox, and cope with your emotions with kindness.
What is emotional hunger?
As we spoke about before, there are different types of hunger and this particular post dives deep into what to do in the case of emotional hunger. People usually view emotional hunger as eating to cope with negative emotions such as boredom, loneliness, anger.
However, there are also other reasons we eat that relate to positive emotions such as excitement and enjoyment. For athletes and active individuals these experiences may feel “off limits” due to the thought that “food is only fuel”. Diet and fitness culture can also drive the idea that eating “fun foods” is “bad” for performance. While food does in fact provide you with fuel for your brain and body, it is more than fuel! It also provides comfort, plays a role in family cultural traditions and is fun to enjoy!
Honoring Your Hunger in a Positive & Practical Way
An important part of having a healthy relationship with food is allowing yourself to sometimes eat in absence of physical hunger, but do so in a practical way. For example, knowing that it’s okay to have birthday cake at the family party instead of just fruit or enjoying your grandma’s homemade cookies on christmas without guilt are all things that athletes and active individuals are allowed to do! However, it may not be practical to have cake an hour before a training session, so in those situations, listening to your body means honoring that craving later so you feel good while moving your body.
How Negative Emotions Can Lead to Using Food as a Coping Mechanism
On the opposite end of the spectrum, when dealing with emotions like boredom, loneliness, anger or stress, it’s important to recognize how often you are feeling these emotions and subsequently how often you are using food to cope.
In particular, athletes and active individuals are more susceptible to emotional eating due to a multitude of factors including high stress and anxiety caused by the pressure to perform well, win at their event and added pressure to look a certain way while doing so. These things, coupled with frequent travel, long days, and little sleep are the perfect storm for these negative emotions to arise.
Recreational athletes and those committed to high levels of fitness may be more prone to stress and emotional eating since fitness culture can make it seem as if aesthetics matter more than health. At these levels, you may also be balancing fitness with family and work-life, increasing stress further.
In addition to these pressures, athletes (both male and female) are often told to hold in their emotions, “be tough” and not talk about feelings. Many active individuals hold on to this later in life or adopt an athlete mentality of excess mental toughness themselves. The lack of a proper outlet to deal with emotions can lead to overeating as a coping mechanism.
Decreased appetite may also be a stress response, which can lead to underfueling and therefore an increased risk of injury and various other complications, including RED-S. Even if an athlete appears “healthy” on the outside, being in a state of chronic stress has negative effects such as irritability, muscle weakness, slowed healing, and fatigue.
How to Cope With Emotions With Kindness
Now that you understand why it’s important for athletes to be able to cope with their stress and other emotions, we can dive deeper into what coping mechanisms are and how to use them.
Coping mechanisms are simply tools that one uses to manage emotions and stress.
Positive coping mechanisms include things like problem solving, finding movement that makes you feel good, seeking help from a professional, and relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and spending time in nature.
Negative coping mechanisms include excessively drinking, smoking and even restrictive dieting. These things mask the problem and can create future problems later on.
It’s OK to Use Food as a Coping Mechanism Sometimes!
You may be thinking, “okay, food definitely can’t be a positive coping tool”. But, it’s actually okay – and normal – to turn to food for comfort! As we mentioned, food is MORE than just fuel. That is why even in the latest edition of the Intuitive Eating book, they changed the principle from “honoring your feelings without food” to “coping with your emotions with kindness”.
Still, if you do choose to use food to cope, you want to make sure that food isn’t the only coping tool in your self-care toolbox and that choosing to eat actually results in some level of mood improvement. You also want to check in with yourself and assess if you are compulsively eating or if the choice to eat results in binges and then more stress via shame/guilt after. This is a common pattern we see when either athletes and active individuals have foods they restrict or they haven’t learned other coping mechanisms throughout life.
Creating a Self-Care Toolbox
In most cases, food won’t help completely remove feelings of stress, anxiety, or sadness. This is why it’s important to cultivate multiple skills to cope with your emotions with kindness. First, you want to find ways to deal with what triggers a negative emotion. At KJN, we like to help our clients create “self-care tool boxes” where they reflect on their past emotions and discover what tools help them cope.
First think about what emotions you commonly feel. Then, brainstorm activities that might help you deal with that emotion.
When I am bored I can ….
- Stretch or fit in PT exercises
- Listen to a podcast
- Read a chapter in a book
- Paint a picture
- Create dinner plans for the coming week
When I am stressed I can…
- Do some yoga
- Take a few deep breaths
- Call a friend or therapist
- Let myself cry!
When I am anxious I can …
- Speak with a therapist
- Journal my thoughts out
- Go some grounding meditation with apps like Calm or Headspace
- Try to take things off my plate by saying ‘no’
- Pick the most important 3 things on my “to-do” list to focus on
When I am lonely I can…
- Call a friend
- Make plans to do something social
- Facetime with family
- Join a virtual group yoga class
Remember that everyone’s self-care toolbox will and should look different. You have to find what works best for you! Also remember that by prioritizing self-care, you are setting yourself up to become a stronger intuitive eater. It’s hard to tune into your body when you are stressed, sleep deprived and worn out.
We understand that stress is hard to avoid (especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic!), and this is why when working with 1-1 clients we take a holistic perspective where we focus not only on physical health, but also lifestyle, habits, mental health, and personal goals. If you need help creating a positive relationship with food and fitness and coping with emotional hunger, click here to learn more about our coaching programs.
Intuitive Eating for Performance Series
Check out the other posts!
- Intro: Nuances of Intuitive Eating for Fitness
- Intuitive Eating Principle 1: Ditch the Diet Mentality for Performance
- Intuitive Eating Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger for Performance
- Intuitive Eating Principle 3: Make Peace with Food for Performance
- Intuitive Eating Principle 4: Challenge the Food Police for Performance
- Intuitive Eating Principles 5 & 6: Discover the Satisfaction Factor & Feel Your Fullness for Performance