Are You Feeding Your Body Or Your Emotions?
At its simplest, hunger is our body’s signal that it needs energy – this is physical hunger. When your stomach literally growls at you, yeah that’s physical hunger too!
However, other factors can trigger us to think we are hungry, even though we are not physically hungry. A significant factor is our emotions. Emotions can affect how we perceive certain foods [comfort foods] and when and how much we eat.1 A lot of times, we aren’t aware that our emotions drive us to eat, even though we aren’t physically hungry.
The good news is that there are ways to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger. As a person living with type 1 diabetes, knowing these differences is helpful because emotional hunger [or eating] can potentially disrupt blood glucose control and lead to other complications.2
Physical Hunger vs Emotional Hunger
While physical hunger gives us physical cues, emotional hunger makes us eat to feel better or cope with negative emotions.3
Are Individuals Living with Type 1 Diabetes at More Risk of Emotional Eating?
Having type 1 diabetes can be stressful. Eating isn’t “just eating food”. Incorporating the many “do’s and don’ts” surrounding the subject of food to help maintain optimal blood glucose levels can be a challenge.2
The stress of managing food intake and diabetes has been linked to eating problems in some individuals. One of these problems is known as “objective binge eating” [OBE]. The definition of OBE is “a loss of control over eating, while consuming an objectively large amount of food”.2
One of the factors that drive OBE is negative emotions. Experiencing higher levels of anxiety, guilt, sadness, and anger can lead to binge eating. In fact, diabetic distress is a valid concern that can affect people living with diabetes and is associated with emotional binge eating.2
Why is Emotional Hunger/Eating Problematic In Type 1 Diabetes?
Maintaining blood glucose levels becomes challenging. The struggle lies in accurately counting carbohydrates and deciding the insulin dosage required at the time.2 It could potentially lead to unsafe methods in restricting calories, leading to further eating problems. Some individuals have been known to withhold their insulin to induce an increased glucose excretion in their urine.2
Poor blood glucose management increases the risk of developing diabetic-related complications such as nerve, eye and kidney damage in the long term. In the short term, it could induce exceptionally high glucose levels leading to diabetic ketoacidosis, which can be life-threatening.2
Though the risks of binge eating tied to emotional hunger are significant, there aren’t many studies dedicated to it.2 There are also no guidelines to specifically address this issue for people living with type 1 diabetes.
Here are some of our thoughts that may help you navigate the challenge of emotional hunger.
- Learn to recognise the symptoms of physical hunger4
- Growling stomach or feeling hunger pangs
- The stomach feels “empty”
- You start feeling less energetic
- You may start to lose focus while working/studying
- When you feel like eating, ask yourself these questions4
- How do I feel? – am I experiencing negative emotions, do I feel bored, do I feel physically hungry?
- When was the last time I ate?
- Determine if certain negative emotions trigger eating1
- Make a list of negative emotions [e.g. afraid, alone, angry, nervous, sleepy and more]
- Note which words trigger you
- Talk with your diabetes healthcare team to see how you can work through them
- Try alternative ways to work through negative emotions or boredom3,4
- Journalling: write all your negative emotions in your journal and then write a list of things you want to get done for that day.
- Consume cold water or other zero-calorie drinks.
- Take a walk, dance to your favourite music, squeeze a stress ball.
- Call a family member or friend who makes you feel better.
- Get enough rest.
- Watch a favourite movie or read a good book if you’re feeling bored.
A lot of people experience emotional eating – whether they live with type 1 diabetes or not. It can get lonely and even frustrating sometimes when you’re trying your best to manage diabetes. Reach out to your healthcare team to find ways to overcome emotional eating because it can help you and your overall health. Food is a great friend to us all – eating healthier fills you with energy and makes you feel better.
- American Diabetes Association. Take charge: emotions and eating. https://www.diabetes.org/. 2021 Available at: https://www.diabetes.org/healthy-living/weight-loss/emotions-and-eating. [Accessed September 2021].
- Moskovich AA, Dmitrieva NO, Babyak MA, et al. Real-time predictors and consequences of binge eating among adults with type 1 diabetes. J Eating Disord. 2019;7:7.
- Network of Staff Supporters Ltd. Emotional hunger vs physical hunger. https://www.noss.uk.com/. 2016 Available at: https://www.noss.uk.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Emotional-hunger-vs-physical-hunger.pdf.. [Accessed September 2021].
- American Diabetes Association. Take charge: emotions and eating – get in touch with your appetite. https://www.diabetes.org/. 2021 Available at: https://www.diabetes.org/healthy-living/weight-loss/emotions-and-eating/get-touch-your-appetite. [Accessed September 2021].