Understanding Emotional Hunger

5 April 2017, Comments: 1

Understanding Emotional Hunger

Eric Edmeads, Founder of WildFit, a global phenomenon bringing health to hundreds of thousands of people, says emotional hunger is driven by four core emotional needs— certainty, significance, variety, and connection. Understanding each will help you recognize your eating disorder’s driving forces so you can quickly course correct.


Your stress is reduced when you feel certain about your environment, your social standing, and your food supply. Today’s atmosphere of global stress is causing many to feel uncertain, and many people deal with this by overeating.

I definitely found that to be true. My bulimia began in college when I was facing an uncertain future, and it escalated in my mid twenties and throughout my life as a single woman. I wasn’t certain I would find the career of my dreams. I wasn’t certain I would find the mate of my dreams. I wasn’t certain I would understand my reason for being on the planet. So much uncertainty plagued my mind, so I stuffed down the questions and purged out the answers.


Your need for personal significance is hardwired. It is important for you to feel recognized in your community because you experience less stress when your efforts are rewarded and acknowledged. Many people feel insignificant in this world of comparison created by the media. Social media especially can leave you feeling “less-than.”

This was true for me, as well. When I lived in Vancouver, bulimia would come and go depending on how well I was coping with life and how my need for significance was being met. Rockin’ my career? In a budding new relationship? Speaking at conferences? Climbing some high mountain? Serving on various boards? My Ed would ebb. But when I moved to Phoenix to be with my now husband, my sense of significance plummeted. I felt essentially alone in a new city (he worked 12 hour days), had very few close friends, no family, and no longer my award-winning real estate career. I was also thrust into a world of global leaders and high-level entrepreneurs. In my career in Vancouver, I had been a big-ish fish in a tiny pond. Now I felt like algae in a vast ocean. My Ed was a way out of the feelings of inadequacy, uncertainty, and loneness, and it began to rage worse than ever. Days and days were spent alone filled with multiple cycles, but a sense of significance would never come out of that. I was just burying my lack thereof.


You can get so stuck in a rut with your existing life structures, activities, and habits that you seek variety in any number of ways, including unsupportive food choices. Rather than getting more creative in how you use your time, you get creative in the foods you eat. But the creation is usually riddled with fat, salt, sugar, and preservatives. Not a pretty picture.

I can see how this need for variety also drove my bulimia in a number of ways. My daily patterns were the same—work, play, have unbearable emotions, experience the need to escape, gather my medicine, ingesting it, purge, feel peace, repeat. It became predictable day after day. And with no one to be accountable to, the cycle perpetuated.

The need for variety was also there in my food choices. So many “fattening” foods were taboo growing up, and lord knows you couldn’t be fat in my family (the first nursery rhyme I recall my dad saying was “fatty, fatty, two by four, couldn’t get through the kitchen door.”

He would also point out larger people and conversely look at me and say, “Don’t worry, you can’t fatten a thoroughbred.”) He was not a malicious person by any means, just highly body focused.

So much pressure and subsequent food restriction might have been the catalyst for the need for variety to eventually kick in. Eat taboo foods, damn it! But, I better not gain an ounce, so just become bulimic. And that’s what I did. How is the variety in your life? Try to create as much of it as you can, so it doesn’t become a driving force for your bulimia.


You are a social animal, and connection is fundamental to your survival. You live in the most technologically connected era, yet it’s perhaps the loneliest version of society ever experienced. Disconnection caused by technology aside, even if you are face-to-face and not screen-to-screen, the glass wall of your bulimia is always between you and any chance to connect. At a social gathering, it’s as if you’re looking into a giant, vibrant, life-affirming aquarium from your little island of dry land. You’re here. They’re there. The wall is invisible, but it is deeply sensed. Friends can’t put their finger on why you seem disconnected, but it’s undeniable. You see them as schools of fish on the other side of the glass swimming happily and connecting with one another, and you want to be with them. But you don’t speak their language nor breathe water. You desperately want the barrier broken, but you have no idea how to live without it. You feel as if breaking that glass will bring a tsunami of water, sharks, fish, and piranhas. You will surely die.

So you eventually use food because certain foods have the capacity to make you feel a sense of connection. Does ice cream remind you of those carefree childhood moments, licking cones with your buddies? Now ice cream replaces the friends. Does chocolate conjure up memories of sitting across from your best girlfriend, sharing a Cadbury bar and your hearts. Chocolate later becomes a personal counselor and confidant. Does popcorn produce mental pictures of your family movie nights? Now, popcorn promises you a pretend feeling of bonding.

My bulimia started when I felt the loneliest and most disconnected. After spending time at my college boyfriend’s home and experiencing the familial connection there, the lack of it I felt at home became unbearable. I pondered all the times my dad was absent before he left for good when I was ten, the years my mom had to work late so no one was home, older siblings busy with their own lives, the sometimes tense moments in our new blended family, and the decades of feeling lost. The feelings cascaded and my realization that I was essentially alone in this world became unbearable. I’m not saying I was alone. There were people around sometimes. But I felt alone and food filled the void.

The important thing to recognize is that certainty, significance, variety, and connection are emotional needs that cannot be satisfied by food, but that often drive your food choices. They sure did mine.

Recognizing Emotional Hunger

Understanding emotional hunger’s roots is helpful, but other than a growl in the stomach, how you really know if hunger is emotional or physical? Do you want to eat because your body needs food or because your emotions need comforting? Emotional eating is defined as “the practice of consuming large quantities of food—usually comfort or junk foods—in response to feelings instead of hunger.”

In her book Constant Craving: What Your Food Cravings Mean and How to Overcome Them, Doreen Virtue further explains the eight ways to determine if hunger is emotional or physical. I found this comparison helpful.

Emotional Hunger
Physical Hunger

Comes on suddenly.

Is gradual.

Is for a very specific food.

Is open to different foods.

Begins in the mouth and mind.

Starts in the stomach.

Is urgent.

Is patient.

Is paired with upsetting emotions.

Occurs out of a physical need for food.

Involves automatic or absentminded eating.

Involves conscious and aware eating.

Does not notice the physical feeling of fullness.

Stops when full.

Causes guilt.

Realizes eating is as important as breathing. There is no guilt.

I hope you can start to really get in touch with the various types of emotional hunger so you can begin to get those needs met in more effective and lasting ways. Bulimia will tell you it’s the answer in the moment, but it always lies.

Love and light,


One response on “Understanding Emotional Hunger

  1. KatD335 says:

    Interesting post, and I’m glad I stumbled across it. I’m an atypical anorexic – I purge, but don’t binge, and I restrict but not to the point where my BMI qualified as anorexic (though I came absurdly close). My Ed started as a teen growing upin an alcoholic, emotionally abusive home with a lot of fat-shaming and dieting. I thought purging was an exceptionally brilliant idea, though I also used over-exercising and self-harm to punish myself for my imperfections. I wasn’t diagnosed with Ed until I was in my thirties, and managed it under the radar until my forties. I did a stint in IOP, and worked for a year with a noted expert psychologist in Eds in adult women, and the dietician in her practice. I also do a 12-step program, though not OA, to manage the addictive side of Ed. I still work with a psychologist, though she is not an Ed-specialist.

    I say this primarily for other people of all ages who may be looking for solutions to Ed. Regardless of your particularly mix of Ed, controlling (and/or ceding control) of food is at its heart. Following any sort of rigid diet plan, be it WildFit, Zone, Blood Type, WW, etc. is playing with fire. Just as my alcoholic friends cannot go into bars even to order a club soda, I have accepted that any sort of rigidity or plan around my food is something I cannot do. For those of us with Eds, PLEASE work with a RD (and psychologist) who has experience with Ed recovery. I’ve tried many different food plans, worked with many dieticians and therapists. Food is NOT the problem behind Ed, it is not a teen issue, it is not a women’s issue, nor is it a control issue. It is a serious medical condition that cannot be treated by diet. Period.

    My sister is now a WildFit coach, and raves about it, even roping another sister in to the 90 day program. I’ve seen my sisters go through so many different coaching and diet trends over the years. The WildFit sister is one who needs to rigidly control her food in order to feel validated. I have accepted that I cannot control my Ed, and that any rigidity around eating or exercise is possibly fatal for me. I also don’t want to bring any food restrictions in to my house, to my husband, to my adult kids. My plan – have healthy options available, eat regular meals, and don’t skimp by using replacement shakes. No food is banished, but I avoid buying foods I would struggle with, or I buy them in small packages, or in flavors I don’t particularly like. Despite 5+ years of recovery, I still struggle and always will.

    Please be careful about going down this path if you’ve ever had problems with binging, purging, restricting, or body image. It is an extremely restrictive diet and a dangerous path.

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