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Mental health is important to overall health, and our psychology can also play a big role in how we manage our weight. If you, like so many others, struggle with emotional, compulsive or binge eating, therapy may help you better understand and reframe your relationship with food and hunger.

There are several factors that can influence our eating patterns, like the friends we hang out with and the culture or families we were raised in. Even so, behavioral modification and mindfulness are key to adopting a healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, this new state of mind is also one of the most difficult tools to maintain.

If you are ready to change your eating patterns, or if you have tried adopting a healthy lifestyle but are struggling to maintain it, talk to your healthcare provider. Setbacks are normal, and humans are not perfect. Your provider should meet the conversation with compassion and understanding.

“In my experience, people are more open to receiving care when they feel respected and supported,” explained psychologist and certified bariatric counselor Kimberly Kohli, PhD. “We always want our patients to know that we’re on their team and here to offer support. We want our patients to feel empowered or encouraged to continue meeting the challenge of overcoming a psychological hurdle.”

Identifying Hunger: Physical or Emotional?

Mindfulness is a powerful tool for improving eating habits. For example, you can practice awareness by determining whether you are experiencing physical or emotional hunger using a series of comparisons:

Physical Hunger

  • Comes on gradually
  • Does not need to be immediately satisfied
  • Several different foods sound appetizing
  • No sense of shame or embarrassment after eating

Emotional Hunger

  • Comes on suddenly
  • Intense urge to satisfy immediately
  • Craving for a specific kind of food
  • Does not resolve with a full stomach
  • Triggers feelings of guilt, shame or powerlessness

Mindful Eating vs. Mindless Eating

Mindless Eating

We’ve all been there: You’re kicking back and watching TV – and the bag of chips you were snacking on is suddenly empty. This is just one example of mindless eating, but it certainly isn’t the only one. When we eat without focus or direction, we are more likely to make poor diet choices. You’re most likely to be tied up in mindless eating when you’re:

  • Eating when bored, stressed, anxious or happy without feeling physically hungry
  • Eating while distracted (driving, walking, texting, working)
  • Eating food because it’s there and looks good – not because you need it

Mindful Eating 

Mindful eating is quite the opposite. Instead of snacking without purpose, mindful eating makes each meal an intentional experience. By tuning in to your mind and body, you give yourself the space to make conscious, healthy decisions. You can practice mindful eating by:

  • Making an effort to eat balanced meals instead of “dieting”
  • Being aware and present when you eat: Get rid of the distractions
  • Using your senses: How does the food smell? Is it crunchy or creamy? Does it taste salty, savory or sweet?
  • Noticing your tendencies: Do you tend to crave sweets when you’re stressed? Do you eat an afternoon snack out of habit?
  • Determining your hunger level: Are you a little bit hungry or a lot?
  • Tracking your hunger in the moment: Can you notice when your hunger is gone before feeling full?

Additional Resources 

Mindful Eating Journal (MIT) 

Mindfulness Hunger Scale

Understanding Hunger Cues (Penn Medicine) 

Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat (Joseph Nelson, NIH)

Learn more about FHP Psychology & Health Psychology