Differentiating Between Emotional & Physical Hunger
Determining the difference between emotional and physical hunger can be tricky. Sometimes these forms of hunger can feel identical, but there are several ways to identify whether the hunger you are feeling is based on emotions or truly physical.
Being able to recognize whether your hunger is solely based on emotions will prevent you from overeating! When you break free of emotional eating, you will save yourself from excess calories and unnecessary guilt and shame.
Traits of Emotional & Physical Hunger
Let’s compare the traits of emotional versus physical hunger. Right now, it may be tough to determine the differences between the two, but after reviewing these lists it might become more clear!
- Is sudden. One minute you are not thinking about food at all and the next minute you are “starving.”
- Is for a specific food. Your craving is for one specific type of food, such as chocolate, pasta, or a burger. No substitute will do.
- Is “above the neck.” Emotional cravings begin in the mouth and mind.
- Is urgent. Emotional hunger urges you to eat immediately to instantly ease emotional pain with food.
- Is often paired with an upsetting emotion or an upsetting situation.
- Involves automatic or absent-minded eating.
- Does not notice, or stop eating, in response to fullness.
- Feels guilty about eating.
- Is gradual. Your stomach begins to rumble. One hour later, it growls. Physical hunger gives you steadily progressive clues that it’s time to eat.
- Is open to different foods. With physical hunger, you have many food preferences, but they are flexible.
- Is based in the stomach. Physical hunger is recognizable by stomach sensations.
- Is patient. Physical hunger would prefer that you ate soon, but doesn’t command you to eat at that instant.
- Occurs out of physical need. Physical hunger occurs because it has been several hours since your last meal. You may also feel lightheadedness or decreased energy.
- Involves conscious awareness of food choices and feelings of approaching fullness.
- Stops when feeling full. Physical hunger stems from the desire to fuel and nourish the body.
- Realizes eating is necessary. When the intent behind eating is based on physical hunger, there is no guilt or shame.
Physical Symptoms of Hunger
There are many different biological sensations that can arise from physical hunger. You will see a few examples listed below.
- Stomach growling
- Thinking/considering what you are in the mood to eat
- Low energy
- Decreased focus
- Hunger grows slowly
- Time has passed since the last meal
The symptoms of physical hunger continue to become more intense over time until ravenous hunger approaches.
Hunger may begin as a slight rumble in the stomach. But, if these feelings are ignored for too long, more intense symptoms will begin, such as headaches and nausea.
Triggers For Emotional Eating
Most often, negative emotions can be triggers for emotional eating. However, happiness and comfort can certainly be triggers as well.
Some of the most common emotional triggers include:
If you recognize you may be feeling one of these emotions, ask yourself a few questions before you begin to eat.
- “Am I eating because I am hungry?”
- “How strong are my current emotions?”
- “When did these feelings start?”
- “How is the food going to help me cope with these feelings?”
- “How long has it been since my last meal?”
Eating based on emotional hunger does not lead to satisfaction. It is also not triggered by physical sensations, such as a growling stomach or low blood sugar.
Hunger Awareness Dialog
In order to practice recognizing whether your hunger is physical or emotional, try following this dialog next time you feel strong hunger.
- What am I hungry for?
- Is my hunger coming from my stomach? If yes, it’s physical hunger and you should replenish yourself.
- Is my hunger coming from my emotions?
- What am I feeling? Angry, happy, bored, overwhelmed, tired, energized, embarrassed, proud, lonely, frightened, comfortable…
- Will food really help? How will it make me feel now/tomorrow/in the long term?
- What can I do instead?
When you have emotional hunger, instead of eating you can actually do many other activities that can really cope with your emotions:
- Get out of the kitchen
- Keep hands busy
- Write your journal
- Connect/be social
- Deep breathing
- Or any other activity that you enjoy
Note the activities listed that you can do instead of turning to food. There are many different ways to cope with emotions. Turning to food during these times will result in increased stress and guilt. Try one of the other activities listed above or check out the list below for some additional ideas.
Other Alternate Activities
- Watch funny and feel-good videos on YouTube
- Listen to music
- Take a bubble bath
- Get crafty! Try painting, purchasing an adult coloring book, or knitting
- Create a scrapbook or photo album
- Research vacation spots
- Cut coupons
- Go for a nature walk
- Study another language
- Rearrange home accessories
- Organize your junk drawer or closet
Being able to identify the differences between emotional and physical hunger is an important concept in the mindful eating journey. When you are feeling the drive to eat, but are not sure if it is based on a physical need, try following the Hunger Awareness Dialog and see where it leads you.
Always remind yourself of these key differences between emotional and physical hunger:
Emotional Hunger – is sudden, for a specific food, is urgent, paired with an unpleasant emotion, guilt or judgment, mindless eating
Physical Hunger – is gradual, open to different foods, physical sensations, is patient, conscious awareness, necessary
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Albers, S. (2020). Mindful eating handouts. Eating Mindfully.
Tribole, E., & Huber, H. (2021). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary anti-diet approach. Blackstone Publishing.
Virtue, D. (1999). Constant craving A-Z: A simple guide to understanding and healing your food cravings. Hay House.