I've met every type of emotional eater. I've met depressed eaters, anxious eaters, stressed eaters, angry eaters and sad eaters. And while their adverbs may differ, their stories are remarkably similar: "When I am ______, that's when I struggle."
Dive deeper and, more often than not, their fill-in-the-blank struggles tend to occur in the later half of their days – from mid- to late afternoon and on through the evening; mornings don't seem to host the same problems.
I find that a bit odd since certainly people have all those same emotions in the day's early hours as well. Why, then, wouldn't emotional eaters struggle with dietary restraint during morning stressors or sadness? Were their struggles purely consequent to a particular emotion, I would expect that the time of that emotional experience ought not affect whether or not a dietary struggle would ensue.
As to what I think might be going on, let's start by considering the human mind. Truly, the human mind is a strange place. It wants to ascribe meaning to everything. From the look of a stranger in line (who probably wasn't paying attention to you in the first place) to the tone of a loved one (who may well not have been speaking in a particular tone) to even why our favorite sports team may be struggling (perhaps their struggles are due to the absence of our adoption of a playoff beard), our minds try to explain them all.
Our minds also want to ascribe meaning to why, at times, our dietary choices don't jive with our best healthful-living intentions. When we're done eating indulgently, we wonder, "Why did I just do that?" and our brain's search for meaning dutifully finds one – and, more often than not, the mind's identified cause is an emotion. Because who among us doesn't have cause to be depressed, anxious or stressed every single day about one area or another in our increasingly frenetic lives?
If your emotional eating struggles tend to be time-of-day dependent – where mornings are easy, but beyond a particular witching hour, you're suddenly eating away your concerns – I'd be willing to wager there's another force guiding your fork. And it's one born out of hundreds of millions of years of dietary insecurity. It's physiologic hunger. Not necessarily the growl-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach kind of hunger, but hunger nonetheless, where hunger, cravings or struggles with portion control arise consequent to the recurrent and predictable, perfect storm of hormones, neuropeptides and proteins that tell our bodies it's time to leave the relative safety of our caves and replenish our energy supplies.
[Read: How to Become a Healthy Snacker.]
Unfortunately, no one has sent our bodies the memo that there's far less cause for concern that calories will be difficult to hunt or find these days. And our brains, which do in fact realize that we're seeking out more calories than we need, scramble to understand why.
The thing is, we can't track our body's physiologic hunger drives. There are no gauges on our forearms that indicate the levels of our hunger hormones ghrelin or leptin – or any of the other physiologic hunger players – and that's a terrific shame. Were we to have access to a means to track our physiologic hunger, we'd also have the means to circumvent its influence.
There's a reason we don't crave green leafy vegetables when we're hungry. They're not energy dense, and our bodies, forged by the white-hot evolutionary crucible of floods, droughts and long harsh winters, know that in response to the body's call for calories, it's sugar and fat that will fit the bill. And, weight loss and healthful-living desires be damned, our bodies' primitive drives trump the more thoughtful desires of our brains.
To be sure, there are some of us who handle physiology better than others or who perhaps have a blunted physiologic drive in which dietary discretion in the face of hunger isn't an impossibility. Or maybe those who do struggle have a heightened physiologic sensitivity to those same biological hunger drivers?
Having worked with, literally, thousands of people who do indeed struggle with choices or portions that their rationale minds tell them aren't worth it – and especially those who report a time dependency to those struggles – there is something you can do that might turn off or blunt your emotional eating. I call it preemptive eating and, simply put, it requires you to eat enough food so as to defuse your body's internal drive. More often than not, that requires regularly organized meals and potentially snacks, in which each of those meals and snacks include sufficient calories and proteins to sooth your primitive body's overly anxious worries about a food supply that was, until exceedingly recently, exceedingly tenuous.
[Read: How to Conquer Food Cravings.]
If you're a later-day emotional eater, try this hunger prevention recipe on for size. You've got nothing to lose and the ability to feel in control of food again to gain:
Calculate your total daily calorie needs by means of an online energy expenditure calculation (like this one), and then divide that number by five. Eat a minimum of one-fifth of your total daily calories for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with each meal including a minimum of 20 grams of protein. Toss in between-meal snacks consisting of at least 150 calories and 10 grams of protein (and if there's a really long stretch between any two meals, have two snacks therein). The only caveat to this recipe is that none of the aforementioned calories or protein should come from liquid sources – those won't have the same impact.
[Read: 15 Healthy Snacks for Fall.]
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and the 10-Day Plan to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.