Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger: Can You Recognize the Difference?

That, “If I don’t get something in my tummy soon, I am going to turn into a raging lunatic” hunger pang you feel – Does it feel different from the repetitive thoughts of how delicious some warm, gooey chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven would taste? Are you able to recognize the difference between emotional hunger vs physical hunger? Both scenarios, at their extremes, can lead to overeating. One comes from your stomach, and the other stems from your head. The key to managing both is learning where you are on the hunger scale, and distinguishing the cause.

Where Are You on the Hunger Scale?

When you wait too long between meals, your body will send physical signals alerting you that it needs fuel. You may feel hunger pangs, or rumbling coming from your stomach. You may feel light-headed, irritable or sluggish. In this state of deprivation, you will have a tendency to overeat. If this happens too often, it can alter your metabolism, and your body may begin to conserve its energy stores. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there may be times that we overeat even when we are not hungry. Over time, if this becomes a regular coping mechanism, it may become harder to differentiate between true physical hunger, and “head hunger”.

The Hunger Scale by Karen Booth, RD, LDN

 

Sometimes it is helpful to think in terms of a hunger scale, with 1 being ravenous, and 10 being so full you feel sick. It is ideal to try to stay between 4-7 on the hunger scale, but understandably, there will be times when this does not happen. The hunger scale is not intended to be used as a “dieting” tool, but as an aid to relearning our internal hunger and fullness cues, which may be lost after years of disordered eating. It can be helpful to stay within the optimal range by eating a balanced meal or snack every 3-4 hours. Over time, this will help your natural rhythms to emerge.

Distinguishing Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger

As we eat, our parasympathetic nervous system activates, and we begin to feel more calm. Our heart rate decreases, and our muscles relax. Food is soothing.

However, there are several ways to recognize if emotions are driving our hunger: Are you using food to cope with difficult emotions, such as anger, boredom, anxiety, loneliness, or resentment? When you are upset or stressed, do you head to the pantry, refrigerator, or freezer? Do you reward yourself with food? Do you hide your eating habits from others? Do you feel out of control around food?

We may use food to fill a void. When we are emotional eaters, our hunger and fullness cues can become hazy. It may take time to relearn the cues that seem innate when we are very young. But first, we must differentiate between emotional hunger vs physical hunger.

The table below gives specific examples of the differences between emotional hunger vs physical hunger.

Physical Hunger                                                             Emotional Hunger                                                  
Openness to a variety of foodsCravings for specific foods
Develops graduallyComes on suddenly
Neutral feelings about eatingGuilt or shame about eating
A sensation of fullness cues you to stop Eating uncontrolled and insatiable, even with a full stomach
It can be delayed a bitYou want specific foods right away
Linked to a physical needLinked to an emotion
Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger Comparison Table

If you continually turn to food to to deal with difficult emotions, it can be what is known as binge eating disorder. This will depend on how often you do this, and how much you are eating. If you are concerned that you might have an eating disorder, it is recommended that you consult with a registered dietitian nutritionist, licensed therapist, or medical doctor.

The Cycle of Emotional Eating

Why DO we eat our emotions? Most of us do, to some degree or another. It can be learned at an early age. Did your parents reward good behavior with food or food events? Were you expected to clean your plate before leaving the table? Over time, you may have lost the ability to recognize your own internal hunger and fullness cues.

Sometimes we use food to fill an emotional void, rather than acknowledge what we are really feeling. Food may be used as a way of “numbing” our emotions, however, it never gets to the root of the problem. It may be helpful to ask some key questions, such as: 

Do you eat when you are not hungry?

Do you use food to numb your feelings?

Do you eat to soothe yourself?

Do you feel out of control around food?

Do you hide your eating habits around others so you can eat what you want?

Do you think obsessively about certain foods?

Do you eat much faster than others?

The Emotional Eating Cycle Diagram by Karen Booth, RD, LDN

 

When we eat certain comfort foods to fill an emotional void, the feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine are released by the brain. However, the feeling of euphoria after a sugar rush is short-lived, and soon the “crash” follows. This is when you fee tired and lethargic, as you would after a big meal. After losing all control, we become stressed once again, and our body releases the stress hormone, cortisol. This hormone not only makes fat loss and weight loss more difficult, but also increases appetite. And so the vicious cycle continues…

How to Overcome Our Destructive Eating Patterns to Establish a Healthier Relationship with Food

It is not easy to change patterns that we’ve developed over the years. These habits and coping mechanisms become engrained. But we CAN take steps to change them. It’s important to remember that it will take time, and there will always be setbacks. Life is full of them. Forgive yourself and move on. It is all part of the journey.

Proven Ways to Stop the Emotional Eating Cycle

  • Learn different ways to cope with stress.

Find something that works for you, whether it be listening to your favorite playlist, journaling, coloring, doing a puzzle, reading, etc. 

  • Face the problem. 

Try dealing with whatever it is that you are feeling head-on. If you are bored, find an activity that you enjoy. If you are lonely, try doing something that makes you feel connected.

  • Pause.

Before eating, take a few minutes and tell yourself to wait. For if we tell ourselves “no”, it just makes what we want that much more tempting. Ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” Take inventory of how you are feeling. What are you are feeling? Whether you proceed to give in to the temptation, at least you will know what it was that triggered you. As you practice this, you will learn to recognize what your triggers are, and with work, you can slowly train your brain to adopt NEW habits and behaviors.

  • Get active.

Aim for 30 minutes a day of joyful movement. Exercise releases feel-good brain chemicals like endorphins and the pleasure hormone dopamine, which reduce stress, depression and anxiety. So do something you enjoy, and get out and move!

  • Hydrate.

Our body will confuse dehydration with hunger. Make sure you are drinking plenty of fluids, and not confusing the two.

  • Practice meditation.

Mindfulness meditation can be an effective treatment for both binge eating disorder and emotional eating. Even deep breathing can help.

  • Be portion savvy. 

Pre-portion food beforehand, and try using smaller plates so you trick your mind into thinking you have more food on your plate. Pause before going back for seconds. And remember, moderation is key! If we restrict ourselves too much, it can often have the opposite effect of that which we intended.

  • Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day.

If we go for too long between meals, our body is then at the upper range of the hunger scale. This is when our blood sugar drops, and we tend to overeat or make unwise food choices. Try incorporating high fiber foods like fruits and vegetables throughout the day which help you feel full. Protein sources, which stay in your stomach longer, are also a good choice. When your blood sugar levels are stable, cravings are less likely to occur.

  • Get support.

Having a healthy support system helps you better handle the day-to-day stressors that come with life. Sometimes, just having a chance to talk things over with a trusted friend, family member or therapist helps reduce stress.

  • Identify and/or eliminate the triggers.

Do you have certain go-to comfort foods? It might be easier to keep them out of the house. High fat and high sugar items are usually the culprits, like chips, ice cream, and chocolate, to name a few. Try having fruit, plain popcorn, or other lower calorie options on hand instead. 

Are there certain situations that make you turn to food for comfort? Are there certain times of day with which you associate food as a reward? Being aware of those situations will help you be better prepared.

  • Practice mindful eating.

Turn off the TV, put away the smartphone, and turn off the tablet and laptop. Focusing on what you are eating, while tasting, smelling, and savoring every bite, slows you down and helps you tune in to how much you are eating. Not to mention, it makes eating more enjoyable! How many times have you mindlessly inhaled your food while watching the news? Take time to chew your food before swallowing, and give your mind a chance to catch up to your stomach. Remember that it takes about 20 minutes for the fullness signals to get to your brain, and it is easy to miss the message when we are distracted.

  • Get adequate sleep.

When you are not getting enough sleep, this causes hormonal imbalances that can also increase food cravings. You are also more likely to crave high sugar foods for a quick jolt of energy. 

  • Practice self care.

Having a daily self-care ritual can be a gratifying experience. Reward yourself with things that heal your body, such as a bubble bath, aromatherapy, dry brushing, stretching, etc. This will feel so much better afterwards!

  • Keep a food and mood journal.

By tracking your patterns, you can identify your triggers so you can develop new ways to deal with them. It is best to keep a record of what you ate, when you ate it, what you were feeling before you ate it, how you felt as you were eating, and how you felt afterwards. You may discover that eating more throughout the day will prevent binges later on in the evening. Sometimes, we are simply allowing ourselves to get too hungry, which makes us even more susceptible to a late-night binge. By journaling, you will be better equipped to determine if it was emotional hunger vs physical hunger.

For a quick tip sheet on ways to stop mindless eating, grab your free copy here!

Changing Habits

If you struggle with emotional eating, you CAN have a healthier relationship with food. Most all of us have experienced emotional eating at various points in our lives. Habits develop over time, and change will not happen overnight. If you are looking to feel in control around food, and honor your natural hunger and fullness cues, you CAN relearn this. And if you’ve been operating on autopilot for years, it will take time to learn new patterns and behaviors. You may fall back into old habits, but that is part of the journey. It is difficult to break the cycle of emotional eating, but it IS possible. Believe you can change, and you will!

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and they will come forth later in uglier ways.” ~Sigmund Freud

2 thoughts on “Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger: Can You Recognize the Difference?”

  1. Great info!

    I tend to mindless eat when I am on the phone. But I thinking keeping a journal helps keep me so much more accountable.

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