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Hunger vs. Emotional Appetite

Posted Oct 31 2011 12:00am
Oct 31, 2011 Posted by on Oct 31, 2011 in Blog | 26 comments

There are all kinds of reasons we eat: happiness, sadness, boredom, excitement, stress, exhaustion. If we’re doing it right, we might be really focused on fueling our workouts. If we’re feeling indulgent, we might eat just to enjoy the simple, luscious pleasure of the taste of a favorite food.

One of my favorite things about the Whole30 is that it doesn’t just address what we eat. It also tackles the big nasty WHY monster. My experiences with strict Whole30s has taught me to savor my food and to learn to recognize the sensation of real, natural, healthy hunger.

The best emotional gift I’ve received from eating paleo is that 95% of the time, I don’t eat solely for pleasure. That doesn’t mean my food isn’t pleasurable. Y’all know I LOVE my dino-chow and spend lots of brain power to cook up delicious combinations of meat+veg+fat.

But thanks to the things I’ve learned about my eating patterns via the Whole30, most of the time, I eat to thrive. And on those rare occasions when I do eat treats for the pure pleasure of it, I enjoy them immensely.

Which is a roundabout way to say that I enjoyed a lot of non-paleo foods in Prague and Paris. Physically, I felt pretty good. My digestive system didn’t complain, and I had plenty of energy to do workouts at CrossFit Praha and to tromp around the cobbled streets and climb the twisty stairs of castle towers.

Emotionally, however, was a different story.

Man, oh, man! I was moody! I was happy and having fun 90% of the time, but I was like an 8-year-old at a Halloween party, very sensitive to blood sugar dips (and maybe wearing a funny outfit). I had to feed the monster frequently – and I was pretty freakin’ cranky in the morning until I’d eaten.

It got me thinking, again, about all the reasons we eat and the tricks we can use to keep those reasons in balance. Now that I’m home and back on the paleo path, I’m committed to really listening to the signals in my stomach and ignoring the little demon voice that tries to trick me into thinking that I’m hungry when I’m not.

Intellectually, I’m 100% ready to eat clean, but emotionally? I miss being in Prague. I’m a little sad to be back at work. I’m slightly overwhelmed by the final stretch of cookbook production. That’s like the perfect combination of ingredients to send me into snarf mode.

But I’m not going to pander to my emotions with food, and that’s because of the valuable lessons I’ve learned during past Whole30s.


The numero uno thing that’s helped me is the realization that eating “comfort” food will not change my emotional state in the way I want. It might provide a momentary distraction – and momentary pleasure – but whatever I’m dealing with… happiness, frustration, anger, fear, worry, excitement, boredom… whatever emotional state I’m in will still exist AFTER I’ve eaten the food. And in most cases, depending on what I ate and how much, I could make my emotional state worse. The food, usually, will not make it better. The exception to this rule, of course, is if I’m eating because of real hunger. So the trick becomes (1) feeling the difference between hunger and emotional appetite; and (2) feeding the hunger with real, Whole30-approved food; and (3) feeding the emotional appetite with something other than food to recognize and validate those emotions.

That’s pretty simple to understand, but it can be a f*cking nightmare to put into practice.

The key is to be as present and mindful as possible because it’s about so much more than eating. It’s about knowing ourselves, understanding our emotional storms, and THINKING our way out of behaving in a way that’s driven by emotions.


1. I never have anything in the house that’s not Whole30 approved.
That way, if I have an unpleasant “grazing” session, I’m at least overeating on foods that won’t hurt me.

2. Drink a glass of water. Or two.
I know it sounds like an old dieters’ trick, but it also helps me slow down and THINK about what I’m doing. It’s the breather to help determine the difference between true hunger and emotional appetite.

3. Make it a challenge.
Sometimes the brat in me wins, and I think I don’t care if I’m just feeding my emotional appettite. When that happens, I appeal to that bratty side and make it like a workout. I set a 20-minute timer and challenge myself to not eat a damn thing until the timer goes off. If at the end of those 20 minutes, I’m hungry, I eat Good food. If at the end of the 20 minutes, I just still “really want something,” I give myslelf a stern talking to and ban myself from the kitchen. Sometimes it really is just about muscling it out. It’s unpleasant, but I refuse to be ruled by false messages sent to my body by my fickle emotions.

4. “Kitchen’s closed.”
I tell myself that after dinner… or in the afternoon when I want the pleasure of eating, but I’m not actually hungry. I say it out loud, “Kitchen’s closed.” I pretend I live on a cruise ship or at a resort with ridiculously tight-fisted rules about the pantry, and when the kitchen is closed, it’s CLOSED. It’s silly, but the imagination is a very powerful tool. (I do the same thing when it’s time for me to go to bed, but I don’t feel sleepy. I say to myself, “It’s time to get sleepy.” and start tricking my body into believing it.)

5. Meditate, dance, cry, talk it out.
Emotions will not be denied, so when I realize I want to eat because of an emotional appetite, I know I need to find a way to deal with those emotions. Sometimes it’s as simple as telling Dave what’s on my mind. Other times, I need to crank some music or indulge in a really good cry. Emotions are like a vampire; they will have their due and the best way to move through them is to give them attention but not the food they want. YOU don’t want that food, the emotion does. Let it go calorie-hungry and feed it with attention instead.

6. Enlist an ally.
Everyone I work with and all of you fine people and all of my Twitter and Facebook peeps know that I’m committed to dino-chow. And I know that if I turn to y’all for a word of encouragement, I’ll get it. Use the tools and people around you for support. I’m here. Likeminded people are on Twitter and Facebook. Recruit your co-workers. It’s totally OK to complain about wanting to eat; most people will sympathize… and then they can help you sort out if you’re really hungry or if something else is going on. I’m always amazed at how saying, “I really want to eat  that [insert the name of something that doesn't make me healthier]!” the hold it has on me evaporates. Try it!



  1. Brilliant post, Mel. You’ve really captured the psychological essence of the program – the big picture stuff that folks often miss when they are SO focused on the technicalities and the rules.

    After you’ve been eating good food (a la Whole30) for a while, you can learn to trust your body’s natural regulatory systems (like hunger mechanism) again. However, there will always be times when your hormones or emotions override all, and send you signals that just aren’t true.

    I like the HALT approach – Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. Used commonly throughout addiction treatment programs, it also works surprisingly well for those of us who simply struggle from time to time with emotional eating. Before embarking on that fridge or cabinet-raid, ask yourself, “Am I REALLY hungry, or am I just angry/lonely/tired?” (I’ll add “bored” to that list as well.)

    Taking the time to really evaluate our feelings and get in touch with our emotions using this helpful little catch phrase can save us the guilt of “binging” when we don’t REALLY want to – even if the food is healthy.

    Because in the case of those eating Whole30, Whole9 or dino-chow, it’s not the FOOD that makes us feel guilty, it’s the act of eating mindlessly and without control that pulls the trigger.


  2. Misty Nikula says:

    Great perspective, Mel! I love that you recognize that there are times, like a wonderful vacation, to enjoy eating non-clean foods and rather than feel guilty or beat yourself up about it, you just notice that they don’t make you feel as great as eating cleanly. :) I really like your helpful hints, as well. I think that I get into a routine of eating “because it’s time to eat” – and I wonder how eating on a deserted island with no clock (and lots of clean food) would be for me….

  3. Laura Lee says:

    Great tips! Sometimes it’s truly only water I need. When thirsty I start craving all sorts of really, really bad-ish things and force my daughter to “get [paleo] baking!”

    I love HALT too!

  4. Jude says:

    Welcome back! Your trip looked perfect, I loved the updates and happy snaps of you and Dave.

    I used to be a HUUUUUGE emotional eater. Any emotion, other than “neutral” prompted a celebratory or morale boosting snack.

    I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I’m cured now, but certainly cutting out all sugar and eating more fat has helped a lot.

    I figure my emotional eating is all down to my inner sugar whore, and as long as I don’t give her anything to eat, she’s too weak to make a fuss.

    or something.

    I’m very scientific, doncha know.


  5. Allie says:

    I just ate a CUPCAKE because I’m stressed out. Not okay.

    Living with 3 roommates who are constantly pressuring me to eat what they eat-which is NOT paleo-really puts my will power to the test. Sometimes I need to just recede to my room and pretend that the food that just passed under my nose does not exist. The more times I walk by, the harder it gets to say no.

    I love the “kitchen is closed” statement! What also helps me is rereading the “This is not hard!” pep talk on the Whole30 site. Saying no is so easy for me in other areas like alcohol and drugs, and I need to bring that same mindset to the food game. Non-paleo foods are poisonous addictives, and that is that.

    Just Say No, Above the Influence…all that jazz. We can do it!

  6. Lauren says:

    Thanks for finally making this a post! I had emailed you a while back about living a teacher’s lifestyle and keeping emotional eating in check. I’m not a full time teacher anymore, but still teach a couple times a week and I’m surrounded by more unhealthy temptations than before. I also started a new job which comes along with a whole sack of emotions. I plan on reading this at least a dozen more times. Thank you again.

  7. Meghan E. says:

    I JUST posted on Melissa’s FB wall about the physical action of eating vs the mental aspect of eating. The mental thing is the hardest part for me– gotta keep being mindful of my eating, otherwise I’ll mindlessly slap on some pre-prepared egg salad on my yummy salad plate just because the hard boiled eggs are all gone. NO. Gotta be mindful about what goes in my body.

    Welcome back to sanity, Mel. ;)

  8. Lydia says:

    I’m definitely (and unfortunately) an emotional eater, too. Like Jude, I don’t know that I’ll ever be 100% over it, but eating clean sure helps. My worst trigger is tiredness. I have health issues that make me feel tired most of the time, and once I let myself fall into a slump, the cravings soon follow.

    I’m starting a Whole30 today in solidarity with a local friend who is trying to get her eating issues under control. Here’s to thirty days of eating right, sleeping right, and feeling a little bit better every day!

  9. Andrea says:

    I love your blog and have been reading it for a while so I know what you mean about emotional eating. I had the same kind of issues. I started a leptin reset per Jack Kruse and it really has changed the emotional eating. I thought it was nice when people went paleo and said they didn’t crave bad food anymore. Great for you, not happening for me. But doing the reset and specifically eating 50g of protein for breakfast ASAP has definitely changed emotional eating in a way that just Whole30/clean paleo hadn’t. I still like to think about melting 30 Reese’s peanut butter cups into a sauce to pour over, well, anything. But there’s no yearning behind it. And, I seem to deal with stress in a way that doesn’t make me first think, “sugar/bacon/wine will solve this!”
    So, all of the above, and maybe try having a 3/4lb grass-fed burger for breakfast for a few days and see how it works.

  10. Chowstalker says:

    Welcome home Mel! Has Smudge forgiven you for being gone so long? I’m so glad you were able to enjoy your trip and not struggle with digestive issues, but I SO understand the crankiness that follows.

    Excellent post and comments as well. I stick pretty close to the Whole30 rule as far as what’s in the house and that is a big help for me b/c we rarely eat out. Drinking water always helps, but it is something I struggle with remembering to do for some reason.

  11. Walker says:

    “YOU don’t want that food, the emotion does”

    very powerful stuff, thank you thank you thank you!

    Used to work for tony robbins and he had a theory about 6 human needs. Long story short, I realized that I often indulge in behaviors to meet the need for Significance (and perhaps Love/connection). I make myself feel loved and important by “treating” myself. It was a useful exercise to write out a bunch of other ways I could meet this need (recognizing the need would always exist). For example, I could treat myself with a pedicure instead of a brownie :-)

  12. Robyn F says:

    WOW!!! Most of this really hits home. I am such a bored and emotional eater. For the last 2-3 weeks I have been trying the water “trick”. It really does help. Night is the worst time for me. A lot of times when I feel like eating “just because”. I go to bed. That really does help. Thanks for the tips! I am going to print them and hang them on the fridge, the bathroom mirror, my desk station at work. Reminders always help.

  13. April says:

    I love this post! Like so many I also struggle with emotional eating. One thing that I’ve found that works well for me is to drink tea- my favorite is Harney and Sons Hot Cinnamon Spice- It’s made with cinnamon, sweet cloves, and orange peel and it’s delicious! Having a cup of that will help keep sugar cravings at bay (plus cinnamon helps stabalize blood sugar!)

  14. LOVE this post, lady! I’m a reformed (for the most part) emotional eater and most (or all) or my nutrition coaching clients are emotional eaters.

    I usually find myself standing in front of the fridge when I’m bored…or when I feel a little defeated.

    I actually use a lot of your tips! Especially the “meditate, dance, cry…” When I have cravings, or I’m emotionally hungry, I know that it’s my body’s way of asking for something–a hug, some stimulation…Most times I can figure out what I need and satisfy the craving in a non-food way, but sometimes I just have to eat, because if I don’t, I find myself in that negative dieting-mentality-cycle (I’m depriving myself of food). It gets complicated.

    Thanks so much for sharing this!

  15. Mel says:

    Thank you for all your thoughtful comments, everyone! I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few days as I make the final transition from vacation eating to real life eating.

    I’ve been trying NOT to put a line in the sand and say I’m doing a Whole30, but I find myself mindlessly eating stuff I know I don’t REALLY want: a mini peanut butter cup yesterday, a handful of nuts that disappeared into my mouth before I knew what I was doing.

    Saying out loud, “I’m doing a Whole30″ helps me slow down and think before I consume, so today is my Day 1 of what I’m thinking of as a mellow Whole30. I’m just going to do it with no fuss, no muss. And I’m super excited to make a completely compliant Thanksgiving dinner.

    Thanks so much for being my sounding board and sharing your experiences.

  16. Marcy says:

    Relating much more to the introduction to this post than the heart of it, I get crazier when I eat grains.

    It doesn’t cause any digestive distress, but the next day (or two or three) I am a little more ‘sensitive’ to everything.

    I have mental illness in the family, so talk about motivation to avoid grains! Unfortunately it took me a long time to make the connection, so that’s why I’m ‘sharing’ here.

    • Mel says:

      Have you read Primal Body, Primal Mind? Nora G. talks a lot about the relationship between grains/gluten and mental illness. So glad you know now that grains can make you feel poorly.

      • Marcy says:

        I saw Nora personally! I did read her book, but it clicked for me when I read about someone else’s mental illness ‘acting up’ when she ate grains. In her case it was OCD. I tend toward anxiety/depression. Somehow knowing there’s a semi-external cause makes me feel less crazy. I guess because I know it will pass if I stay on my healthy eating path.

  17. Meagan says:

    Kitchen closed – cute idea! I bet it works!!

  18. Mel, so appreciate this post. Clear and practical!

    I want to add to what you’ve shared by offering the perspective that difficult emotions don’t have to be a problem — they can be a doorway into healing and freedom at a level we might not even know is possible. I get it. Most of us are so established in patterns of avoidance of the unpleasant emotions: our culture has trained us in fear of strong emotions, our biology inclines us toward avoidance of the unpleasant or frightening, and a culture of convenience makes it ridiculously easy to find 100 things to distract ourselves with, and food fits the bill beautifully!

    But what I am beginning to get is that every emotion just wants to be acknowledged, welcomed, and loved. Really! If we train ourselves to bring loving attention and acceptance to the feelings and sensations coming up RIGHT NOW, and just keep doing that, the stuck emotions and emotional patterns get to rise to the surface and then MOVE ON. And we eventually become much healthier on all levels, not just the physical.

    To me health is about unimpeded Flow. Eating Paleo is allowing my physical body to clear the obstructions to that flow so that a greater and greater quality of well-being becomes possible. I want that flow emotionally too. The hardest emotions for me are the stagnant ones — the ones that open the door to a whole room of unfelt, denied, ignored, or rejected emotions. It’s taking me some time to clear out those rooms, but the clearer they get the more uncommonly the old stuck, gummy, dark emotions arise. Choosing to stop indulging my habits of emotional eating has brought a lot of that business to the surface. This is a good thing! It helps me so much to remember that and reframe it. “Oh, awesome! There’s that crap mood or feeling again. Excellent. This time I get to allow it, embrace it and love it, or at least go make faces at it in the mirror. I’m on the right track and progressing every minute. Yay me!”

    Hope this is helpful for some.

    Thanks again, Mel. So glad to have discovered you!

    • Mel says:

      Lauren, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. You helped me realize something… in the last two years, I’ve really started EXPERIENCING my emotions. I’ve always been “moody” and “in touch with my feelings,” but I didn’t always acknowledge and experience my real feelings. I put on a brave face, I ate, I did all kinds of avoidance behaviors. Around the time I really embraced paleo, I also started respecting and experiencing my emotions… and that’s when it became much easier to identify hunger and emotional appetite.

      So thank you for writing because you helped me realize a big change in myself.

  19. Hey Mel, so glad to hear this! I am fascinated with this whole process of behavioral change and all the inner and outer transformations that can happen once we get aligned with nature and our bodies’ needs, physical and emotional.

    What you say is so powerful — we can respect and experience our emotions — and this is really just another aspect of trusting and aligning with the incredible design of our bodies and minds. All the good stuff that happens when we start respecting the physical body’s design and needs is similar to all the good stuff that happens when we start to trust and honor the emotional body too. It knows how to be healthy! We just have to get out of the way with all the repressing or fixating that we do.

    Thanks so much for your response =)

  20. Mel says:

    Thank YOU. The psychological/emotional side of training and nutrition is most interesting to me, and I’m so glad to have you join the conversation.

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