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Four Easy and Effective Ways to Distinguish Emotional Hunger from Physical Hunger

Becca Clegg

How do you know when you are hungry?

Is it a thought, a feeling, or an urge?

This question isn’t as simple to answer as it may seem, because hunger isn’t a simple sensation.  There are lots of reasons why people eat, and all of them can be masked or interpreted as hunger. 

Do you really eat birthday cake when you are at a party because you’re hungry?

Do you take that Snickers break every day at 4 p.m. because you are hungry?

Do you sit in front of the television eating ice cream when you are sad because of hunger?

No, of course not.

But often the feeling of emotional hunger that drives us to eat feels like physical hunger in some way.  We interpret it the same way we do physical hunger, so it can be confusing to distinguish between the two.

In order to understand the difference between emotional and physical hunger, I want to point out four quick and easy ways to easily tell the difference.

  1. Emotional Hunger is FAST AND FURIOUS…Physical Hunger is SLOW AND STEADY: If you are driving in traffic and are suddenly hit with an urge to eat something right away (which happens to me, Every. Single. Time.), that’s emotional hunger.  It’s a response to feeling stressed and frustrated.  Physical hunger is slow and builds with a cumulative increase that presents itself over time.  You go from a feeling of, “I should eat something soon” to, “I need to eat right now” over a long period if you ignore the initial urge.
  2. Emotional Hunger is SPECIFIC…Physical Hunger is GENERAL: If you are craving a Snickers bar, that’s not physical hunger.  Physical hunger sends the signal that you need to eat.  It is not specific, and not picky.  It just wants you to eat food of some sort.  You can be physically hungry and decide to eat something specific, but that is different from the craving that one experiences with emotional hunger specific to certain types of food. Craving chocolate is a good example.
  3. Emotional Hunger is experienced ABOVE the neck…Physical Hunger is experienced BELOW the neck: This one is kind of interesting to describe, but hear me out.  Emotional hunger is usually experienced as a thought, an idea. It is in the mind.  Emotional hunger can also be experienced in the mouth, such as when we salivate after seeing a delicious dessert.  We aren’t necessarily physically hungry, we are just having a craving.  Physical hunger is usually experienced in the gut, as in a rumbling in our stomach.  The exception to this is the headache that can be felt if we become too physically hungry
  4. Emotional Hunger eating leads to a GUILT HANGOVER…Whereas eating to satisfy physical hunger is usually accepted: Pay attention to how you feel after you eat.  Are you angry or do you feel guilty?  Check in as this is likely a sign that you are eating for emotional reasons.  It is not a steadfast rule, but usually when we eat to satisfy physical hunger, we do not have the same guilt hangover we experience when we eat for emotional reasons.

Use these four easy points of reference to check in with your own hunger every time you feel like eating.  It’s okay to eat for both emotional and physical reasons, but the more conscious you are of why you are eating, the stronger your ability will be to make good choices about what you are eating.