Not too long ago, I received this question from a reader:
Learning the different types of hungers has been helpful yet I struggle most with eating when I am not hungry. Like I KNOW I am not hungry yet I eat the food anyway. Especially really tasty food. Or sometimes it isn’t even that great and I am just watching TV after work then notice I have gone through a bag of chips. I don’t remember tasting them!
Can you relate to this? All of us experience eating when not physically hungry and it is a part of normal eating. Eating outside of hunger many times throughout the day, though, will affect health and the way we cope with life. At times it may seem like eating outside of hunger happens for no reason and I encourage you to dig deeper. There is meaning. I believe it symbolizes an unmet need.
Dr. Barbara Birsinger RD refers to eating outside of physical hunger as symbolic hunger. She is the author of Intuitive Eating Seven Step Process. She also trains professionals on a Food Decoding tool that discovers eating particular foods with feelings and needs while connecting a person with healing. I am grateful she has trained me in this and allowed me to better understand symbolic hungers.
What is symbolic hunger? That depends. To uncover what it means for you, I encourage you to practice kind nonjudgemental curiosity. Instead of saying, “I shouldn’t have eaten that I wasn’t even hungry!” try something different. Using should to describe your eating pattern is maladaptive…meaning it won’t get you anywhere but in a funk and dead end. Call out that should and step back. Consider a bigger picture. Changing your frame of reference here will open you up to the meaning behind this eating style: its symbol. Knowing this symbol will move you important steps further.
While you are stepping back from the should moments, ask yourself these important questions:
- What was I experiencing right before I started symbolically eating? (Were you speaking with anyone, thinking about an event, trying to relax, etc. No right or wrong here. Just consider the possibilities.)
- Was I feeling anything uncomfortable? (Were you stressed, angry, ashamed, frustrated, bored, happy, or lonely?)
- When I feel these feelings, what do I really need?
Once you start moving the shoulds out of your way, a kind curiosity will allow you to acknowledge your symbols. Taking the symbols for what they are and examining them for what they are worth will bring you closer to your unmet needs. Holding these needs in your hands and close to your heart will allow you to consider your steps to heal. I find clients uncover numerous unmet needs all requiring time and attention. This means I don’t want you to rush through this! Understanding your symbolic eating will be a vital part of your recovery.
Next time you find yourself eating outside of physical hunger or craving to do so, do not run away. Say “welcome!” to the symbolic hunger. Your body is trying to tell you something important. Your job now is to listen.