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Recognizing the Difference between Physical and Emotional Hunger

The demanding life of graduate school, coupled with the relatively modest income associated with stipends and assistantships, helps to perpetuate the image of the “starving graduate student.” While they are not actually starving, graduate students are often hungry on more than just a physical level. The stress of graduate school can also lead to an emotional hunger, satisfied by “emotional eating.” Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better—eating to fill emotional needs, rather than to fill your stomach. We all engage in emotional eating from time to time. Food is used as a reward, a method of celebration or connection, or perhaps a way to motivate ourselves after a long day of work.

During graduate school, you may find yourself eating for non-physical reasons more often than you like. Stress, loneliness, exhaustion, frustration, and procrastination are common emotions that can lead to emotional eating. Sometimes emotional eating is tied to major life events, like separation from loved ones, a death, or a divorce. More often, though, it’s the countless little daily stresses that cause someone to seek comfort or distraction in food.

Being stuck in a cycle of emotional eating can lead us to feel powerless or guilty and impact our overall sense of confidence and self worth. The first step in addressing emotional eating requires that we explore our relationship with food.

  • Do I eat more when I am feeling stressed?
  • Do I eat when I am not physically hungry or when I am full?
  • Do I eat to feel better (to calm and soothe myself when I am sad, mad, bored, anxious, etc.)?
  • Do I reward myself with food?
  • Do I eat until I am stuffed?
  • Do I feel like food is a friend?
  • Do I feel powerless or out of control around food?

Tips for Managing Emotional Eating:

Try to eat every few hours according to your physical hunger cues to prevent severe drops in blood sugar.

Be aware of how you eat (i.e., driving in the car, at the computer, walking to class, or eating in front of the TV). All of the above are considered “mindless eating” and can contribute to overeating. Try to eat sitting at a table without distractions.

Emotional eating usually occurs in the evening or during times of transition (after a long day at work). It can help to consider other ways of transitioning after a long day (taking a walk, listening to music, or just quiet time by yourself or with a loved one). Engaging in a transition activity can provide you with 15-30 minutes of check-in time with your body to assess your emotional state BEFORE you eat.

Engage in “mindful” eating habits. Mindful eating requires that we slow down the pace of our eating and engage all of our senses in the eating process.

Try keeping a food/mood log to track your food choices and emotions throughout the day. Often you will see patterns emerge or gain awareness of emotions that you have collected throughout the day.

Determine if there are deficits in other areas of your life such as your friendships, romantic attachments, or your work community.

Assess other areas of potential stress, including career, economic, or familial stressors that may be impacting your mood. Determine if you would benefit from reaching out for support (family, friends, professionals).

Identify options for physical activity or exercise that feel “soulful” and enjoyable.

Be aware of how tiredness can feel a lot like hunger. Food won’t help if sleepless nights are causing daytime fatigue.

If you’re eating to procrastinate, sometimes it is helpful to put the food aside for a few minutes to explore any fears or worries that may be getting in the way. We may want to use journaling as a way to check-in on our emotions. A hot cup of tea and a few minutes of journaling may provide us with an opportunity for this type of internal “check-in”.