Home » Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger: What Are They?

Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger: What Are They?

by Dana Bean, RD

Knowing the difference between emotional and physical hunger can be confusing and tricky at first. Find out what you need to know about each type of hunger, what it may feel like, and what to do after you can identify it. Emotional hunger vs physical hunger let’s get to it!

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Knowledge is power, right? And if we are able to figure out what type of hunger we are experiencing, then we will know better how to help it out! What we need when we are emotionally hungry vs physically hungry can be different. If we are better able to address the hunger we are feeling, then we give ourselves the tools to feel happier, more satisfied, and are able to move on to other aspects of life.

There are some “typical” signs of hunger that may come to mind when I ask this question (like stomach growling), but these tend to be at latter stages of hunger and only analyze how the stomach feels. Physical hunger can be much more than this. As we go into specifics of what physical hunger can feel like, it’s important to remember that everyone experiences physical hunger a little differently, and even the same person may have different signs of hunger at different times.

  • “empty” feeling in stomach or stomach pangs
  • stomach growling
  • increased thoughts about food
  • brain fog/hard time focusing
  • fatigue and low energy
  • irritability (hanger!)
  • headaches
  • “jitters” or restlessness
  • light headed

If you’re confused about what earlier signs of hunger feel like for you, learning more about the Intuitive Eating Hunger and Fullness scale could be helpful.

To figure out how your body may typically react to hunger, try doing a body scan when you know you’re physically hungry. Start with your head and ask yourself what you’re feeling physically and mentally. Is it hard to focus? Are you having more thoughts about food? Then move throughout the rest of your body including chest, abdomen, arms, legs, down to the feet. Keep note of what you notice in that first body scan when you’re hungry and use the body scan again to try to determine physical hunger in the future.

The answer to this is simple, but may surprise you. Food! If you are physically hungry, your body is telling you on a biologically level that it needs more food to fuel the many processes and activities going on. Depending on the hunger and what the next few hours are going to look like for you, the food may be a meal or a snack. To truly satisfy the hunger, it would be best to choose a meal or snack that is enjoyable, satisfying, and has a combination of nutrients.

Diet culture will tell us that when we are hungry we should suppress it or “trick” the hunger into forgetting it existed in the first place. Behaviors like ignoring hunger cues, volume eating, and using water instead of food do not solve out hunger, though. Instead they will temporary put off the hunger, to have it return quickly after and likely stronger than before. Hunger is a necessary biological cue and it’s a good thing that we feel it! Let’s honor our body by acting on that hunger appropriately.

Emotional hunger differs from physical hunger in that its underlying cause is not biological hunger, but being drawn to food in reaction to an emotion. These can include both negative emotions (sadness, loneliness, anxiety, boredom, stress, etc…) and also positive emotions (joy, celebration, coming together with others).

  • Can feel like it comes on more suddenly than physical hunger
  • Can feel like it’s more related to an event/trigger of negative emotion rather than being determined by the last meal or snack
  • Can sometimes be more tied to a craving or specific type of food (ex may want to eat a food labeled as “bad” when feeling stressed or sad)
  • Can include a strong desire to continue eating when already uncomfortably full
  • Can include isolation such as hiding food or amount eaten

Because identifying emotional hunger is more about identifying the specific emotion you may be feeling, it’s difficult to label what emotional hunger will feel like in the body. Specific scenarios may help more to identify emotional hunger. The important thing to note here is that the eating is due to the emotion and not due to physical hunger cues.

  • Feeling stressed at work and grabbing a bag of chips to crunch on while continuing to do the stressful work
  • Feeling bored and making food very frequently to alleviate boredom
  • Feeling joyful and wanting to eat dessert on date night even though you’re too full from dinner
  • Feeling sad and eating snacks while watching a show even though you’re already full and you’ll feel sick after

Eating under any of these circumstances isn’t inherently a bad thing. I would even hope there would be room in your relationship with food to eat cake on a friends’ birthday or eat a comfort food when you miss home. But a problem arises with emotional hunger when food is used as the main tool to cope with negative emotion or the sole source of pleasure.

The best way to alleviate emotional hunger is by addressing the emotion that is causing emotional hunger. If the stress is what is leading you to eat for example, let’s address the stress itself. Finding a way to take a break and relax will probably be much more effective in reducing the stress than eating will.

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Finding other ways to cope with negative emotion is important in being able to alleviate or prevent emotional hunger. Connecting with others, finding relaxing activities, and therapy are just a few ways to get started adding coping tools to your toolbox. Building this toolbox can include food as one of the options, but as mentioned earlier we want many other options in here and to be used much more often.

I like to remind my clients that it’s possible to be physically hunger and feel another strong emotion at the same time! If you aren’t sure what type of hunger you’re feeling or think you may be feeling both, go ahead and get an enjoyable, satisfying meal or snack then work on addressing the emotion.

Now that you have an idea of the differences between emotional hunger vs physical hunger, what each may feel like, and how to address them, it’s time to use this information to apply to yourself! What does YOUR body feel like when it’s hungry? When do you experience emotional hunger? What coping tools would you like to start practicing?

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