Humans are some of the only animals on the planet that don't only eat for hunger (we might be the only ones, but I cannot say I've done any research and thus cannot make that definitive statement). We are complicated creatures with complex emotions and we often eat out of boredom, sadness, happiness, stress, etc. Some of us eat to fuel our workouts and others (like me!) eat because we love the way food tastes!
One of the really great things that happened when I went paleo is that it suddenly becomes easier to distinguish when I was actually hungry vs when I was eating for some other purpose. That's the beauty of cutting the crap out of your diet, your brain and body become better at distinguishing actual hunger from emotion-induced "hunger."
[Tweet "Food itself does not have the ability to make us feel better emotionally."]
Remember that food itself does not have the ability to make us feel better or help us solve our problems. Eating in a moment of sadness might give us a temporary distraction or make us feel better (remember that sugar is essentially the same as illegal drugs as far as your brain is concerned), but in the end the emotion that made us want to eat will still be there in the long run.
The trick here is to learn when you are actually hungry and when your body is trying to feed your emotions. You need to feed true hunger with nutrient-dense paleo foods, but it's important to remember that you need to feed your emotions as well...just not with food. This can be extremely tricky, especially if you are used to feeding your emotions with food (and some doing even realize that this is what is happening).
If you are really hungry...
You've determined that your hunger is real and you need to put some tasty goodness on your plate, here are some habits to create surrounding eating to ensure that you feel satisfied after your meal.
Eat at the table
Many of us are so busy that we forget to stop and take time to enjoy our food. We've all grabbed a snack out of the pantry as we are on our way out the door, or popped open the container of leftovers only to take a few bites before moving on to the next thing. While this works in the short term, it is not the best approach to fueling your body. In order to keep things straight, use your brain and approach your meals mindfully. This means eating your food from a plate or bowl, at the table, using the proper utensils. It doesn't need to be a formal affair, but slowing down and eating a meal in your "eating space" allows you to be in the proper mindset to enjoy your food.
Put. The. Phone. Away.
No one is doubting your ability to answer emails with one hand while you shovel lunch into your mouth with the other. Buuuut, that's not really a good idea. There are studies proving that we eat more and are less satisfied when we are distracted by the computer, the television, or the dreaded (but very useful) smartphone. So, put your phone down and step away from the computer. Eat and enjoy your food, then get back to work.
Slow down and chew!
Research shows that digestion and satisfaction with a meal are improved when food is chewed properly before being swallowed. If you have to put your fork down between bites to ensure that you don't shovel it in too fast...do it. After years of powering through lunch at work (I was working as an RN on a busy Labor and Delivery unit and never knew when I would have my lunch break cut short) and the coming home and shoving my dinner into my mouth as fast as I could handle so I could go to bed ASAP, it took me months to learn how to slow down and take more than five minutes to eat a meal. But once I did, I found that I ate less and felt better!
If you're feeding your feelings
Ban non-paleo foods from your kitchen
It would be best if you learned to identify and avoid emotional eating, but that takes time and discipline. A good place to start is to not keep non-paleo foods in your house. That way, in the event that you do get overwhelmed by emotions and start eating your feelings, you'll have only nutrient-dense, paleo foods on hand to eat which will minimize the "damage" (and the calorie consumption).
Drink a glass of water
An oldie but a goodie. It is not uncommon for our bodies to confuse thirst with hunger (especially since most of us don't drink enough water to begin with), it's also possible that we just need a distraction to slow us down and think about what's really going on. Drinking a glass of water can help you become more aware of what you’re doing. This little time out can help you determine if you need to eat because you’re actually hungry, or if you just want to eat.
Set a timer
When cravings start creeping in, set a timer for 20 minutes and challenge yourself to avoid eating anything until the timer rings. In that 20 minutes, take the time to explore your physical and emotional state. If you are actually hungry at the end of the 20 minutes, eat a healthy paleo meal or snack. If you’re not hungry, chances are very good that by the end of that 20 minutes, your cravings will be gone. This method also works for determining if you really need seconds after a meal too. Waiting 20 minutes before heading back to the kitchen to refill your plate gives your stomach a chance to tell your brain that it really is full.
Take the broccoli test
Most of us are highly susceptible to the power of suggestion. We hear about a tasty food and think oh, I want that. When trying to determine if you are physically or emotionally hungry, the broccoli test is a good place to start. Chances are if you are truly hungry, you would eat something that might not be the tastiest form of food, but will satisfy your hunger, like broccoli. If you feel like you need to eat for other reasons, you'll probably think that broccoli doesn't sound good and hope for something better.