Types of Hunger: Emotional vs Physical Hunger

Types of hunger (Emotional hunger vs physical hunger)

Last Updated on January 18, 2023 by Kayla

Eating is a necessary and pleasurable human experience. We eat for many reasons and because of different types of hunger.

In Buddhism, for example, there are up to seven types of hunger: stomach, mouth, eye, nose, cellular, mind, and heart hunger.

For simplicity’s sake, this post covers two types of hunger – emotional hunger vs physical hunger – and how to distinguish between the two.

In addition, you’ll learn strategies to diminish emotional eating and find solutions that satisfy you – inside and out.

Eating your emotions

Emotional eating is using food to numb, cope, or create feelings. Emotional eating is commonly associated with negative feelings. However, emotions like joy and contentment also encourage eating.

It’s not uncommon to celebrate with food, carry on nostalgic family recipes, and eat based on feelings or surroundings. Everyone is an emotional eater to some degree, so it’s nothing to feel bad about.

We eat to keep the good feeling going, and we eat to numb the not-so-great emotions like anxiety, loneliness, and anger.

Where we get into trouble is when we rely on food to manipulate our feelings.

For example, if your default is to rummage through the pantry or grab a pint of ice cream every time you’re upset, you reinforce short-term pleasure and miss the opportunity to cope with emotions in a positive way.

So let’s look at how to identify emotional hunger which can lead to emotional and over-eating.

Emotional hunger is…

  • Sudden, impulsive
  • Influenced by a trigger or emotion
  • Specific to a certain food
  • Unsatisfying (numb to senses, don’t feel full)
  • A signal for fulfillment in other areas of life
  • A temporary “fix”
  • Not about the food!

Do these sensations sound familiar? Does your “hunger” come on suddenly or in reaction to a trigger? If so, then you’re not hungry – physically, anyway. Instead, you are experiencing emotional hunger or a craving.

Emotional hunger vs physical hunger

True or physical hunger appears very differently from emotional hunger and presents like this.

Physical hunger is…

  • Gradual, comes on slowly
  • Physical (stomach growling, low energy, brain fog, shakiness, etc.)
  • Regulated by hormones
  • Satisfied by most foods
  • An evolutionary protective mechanism
  • Not a bad thing!

So next time “hunger” hits, use this list to assess whether it’s emotional hunger (i.e., craving) or true, physical hunger.

To read more about how to reconnect with your hunger signals, check out the brief article below from Michelle May, MD, author of one of my favorite books on emotional eating – Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat.


What happens when you eat out of emotional hunger vs physical hunger?

We eat because of many types of hunger. Physical hunger relies on hormones to tell us when we’re famished, full, and satisfied.

Ghrelin is the primary hormone that stimulates hunger. Hormones like insulin, leptin, cholecystokinin (CCK), and PYY work in tandem to tell us when we’re full.

Emotional hunger doesn’t have this feedback loop; there is no system that says “stop.” And so, we eat past discomfort and are left feeling disgusted and discouraged with ourselves.

This can lead to overeating, restricting, and all-or-nothing thinking. A vicious cycle that is both mentally and emotionally taxing. Not to mention the physiological repercussions and potential weight gain that follows.

So what’s a person to do if their urge to eat is driven by emotional hunger?

How to satisfy emotional hunger

Fulfilling emotional hunger is complex. It’s uncomfortable and requires a level of self-exploration that perhaps you haven’t experienced before.

First, you must slow down and examine what you truly crave – physically and emotionally.

This practice requires feeling the feels and putting a name to your emotion(s). For a list of emotions, Brené Brown has a free download that illustrates 87 Human Emotions & Experiences.

For instance, maybe you’re hungry for connection with a loved one, anxious about an upcoming event, or in dire need of slowing down and indulging in a good book or a nap – you need a break.

Different types of hunger: Emotional vs physical hunger

One of my favorite ways to tease out and identify how I’m feeling is by journaling. It can be uncomfortable when you first begin, but putting pen to paper helps “clear your cache” and bring clarity about your true needs.

When you define what you’re feeling and contrast how you want to feel, you can begin to identify non-food strategies to help achieve your desired state.

Identifying emotional hunger: Example

You had a long, stressful day at work. You put the kids to bed and can finally collect your thoughts from the day. You’re not physically hungry because you just ate an hour ago, but you notice an urge to eat, a craving – emotional hunger.

So what is it that you’re truly craving?

You realize that you relish this quiet time in the evening and don’t want it to end.

When you eat at night – and/or eat for long periods of time – it extends this relaxation or quiet time. Eating numbs and distracts you from the ruminating thoughts of your to-do list, from the stressors and responsibilities of the day. After all, you earned this, right?

While you might have earned yourself a break, a break doesn’t equate to eating. Needing food (physical hunger) and wanting food (emotional hunger) represent two different types of hunger.

Instead of habitually running to the pantry for your nightly bowl of popcorn or ice cream, stop and ask yourself, “What is it that I really want right now?”

You realize it’s not actually popcorn or ice cream. It’s downtime; you’re craving rest, peace, and stillness. Because it isn’t food you crave, food cannot satisfy this emotional craving.

So what are some ways you can unwind that don’t involve food? Read a book, go for a walk, or give yourself permission to plop on the couch? The options are endless and specific to you.

You may need to experiment with different strategies to see what works best for you, and this habit surely won’t resolve overnight. It takes practice. It does, however, require you to slow down and access your true needs.

So next time you’re interpreting which type of hunger you’ve encountered, ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” And next, “What am I hungry for?”

These questions will help you satisfy and distinguish between emotional hunger vs physical hunger.


Words from the Wise

What you’re looking for isn’t in here.

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When you find yourself aimlessly searching for food that “sounds good” – what I like to call food surfing – consider this: You have a craving for something, but it’s not food. You’re likely craving a change in emotion.

If you feel lost and unsure where to start, join my Back On Track Program for women after bariatric surgery. This 30-day kickstart program focuses on overcoming bad habits like grazing and emotional eating, and you’ll walk away with practical nutrition strategies to manage real-life eating after bariatric surgery.

You can also watch my Emotional Eating presentation sponsored by ProCare Health below.

Distinguishing between emotional vs physical hunger is a skill that requires practice. Be patient with yourself as you learn what does and doesn’t work for you. It’s about progress and persistence, not perfection!

For further questions, send me a message or check out my programs page!

Yours truly,

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