Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger: The Difference

Have you ever came home after work and felt like you deserved a snack after such a stressful day, but then that snack turns into another and another until you can’t stop and now you still feel stressed but now you also feel guilty and ashamed? You probably realize that this is emotional hunger, not physical hunger. However, even though you’re aware of that, it feels almost impossible to stop.

In this blog post, we are going to dive into why you eat emotionally, the differences between emotional hunger vs physical hunger and when emotional eating can actually be helpful so that you can feel more confident in your food choices

Woman eating emotionally on the couch

What is emotional hunger?

Emotional hunger is fueled by emotions like boredom, stress, anger, or sadness. You may turn towards food to cope with these feelings and often use it to comfort, sedate, reward, or punish yourself.

This hunger is usually quick to come on and flooded with specific cravings. Here are a few examples of how emotional hunger may present itself:

  • Using food to comfort yourself after hearing upsetting news
  • Sedating a feeling you don’t want to continue experiencing like guilt
  • Rewarding yourself for completing a task you had been putting off or for having a rough day
  • Punishing yourself with food as an emotional response to missing a workout

By experiencing these emotions and using food in response, you may find yourself in a full-out binge episode because when you are using eating to “check out” or “numb out”, it is difficult to be mindful during that experience.

What is physical hunger?

Now that we’ve talked about emotional hunger, let’s talk about physical hunger. Physical hunger is felt as a sensation in the body that comes on more gradually. Your hunger cues are at play here letting you know it’s time to eat, or you should eat soon. 

Physical hunger cues may include:

  • gurgling, growling or rumbling in the stomach
  • difficulty concentrating
  • more thoughts about food
  • cloudy thinking
  • headache or feeling faint
  • waning energy
  • sleepiness
  • mood changes like irritability or better known as “hangry”

Woman with head in her hands because she's confused and upset

Why do we confuse emotional hunger vs physical hunger?

Our bodies are incredible beings that are able to utilize physical sensations to signal us when they need something. For example, when you are thirsty your body signals you need a drink by causing dryness in the throat. Or when you need to pee, you feel pressure on your bladder.

It’s probably pretty easy to pick up on these signals and honor what your body really needs by drinking water or going to the bathroom. However, when it comes to emotions and physical hunger, it’s more difficult. But why?

You might often confuse the physical hunger and emotional sensations because diets have encouraged you to pull away from trusting yourself and your own body’s cues, like hunger, fullness and satisfaction and instead make choices based on external factors, like the diet, food rules or the scale.

So instead of confidently allowing your cues of hunger, fullness and satisfaction to guide when, what and how much to eat, diets have taught you to…

  1. Turn towards food to numb out emotions you don’t want to feel
  2. Use food as a reward or punishment
  3. Feel guilty, stressed, shameful or confused about food and eating

This can be difficult to unlearn and takes time to readjust to. However, paying attention to your appetite and hunger can bring more clarity into the reason behind your meal. 

What can you do to handle emotional eating?

4 steps to manage emotional eating

Step 1: Take note when hunger comes on quickly and causes intense cravings

Step 2: Try to identify if an external trigger occurred. What you are feeling and what it is that you need to overcome that feeling? (Sleep? Stress relief? Human connection? Food?)

Step 3: Take a moment for yourself- walk away, go do something/give your body what it is needing

Step 4: Come back and note if the hunger is still there

The goal isn’t to distract yourself from eating or prevent you from eating in the long run. It is to help you connect with your body and it’s need so you can provide the solution it truly needs.

When can emotional eating be helpful?

I am not here to tell you that emotional eating is bad or should never happen. We are human and it is part of life to experience it. However, it is important to notice what feelings come up when you are experiencing emotional eating. A helpful emotional eating experience is when you are aware of the choice you are making and can sit down and honor the craving without guilt or shame. Being able to feel mindful around food and stop when you are satisfied allows you to develop a better understanding of yourself and your needs in that moment. 

The Takeaway

Emotional hunger and physical hunger are normal experiences and both should be honored mindfully. Emotional hunger is fueled by our emotions and typically produce physical sensations to signal the need for fulfillment in some area of our life or self care. Physical hunger produces physical sensations to signal hunger as a way for our bodies to let us know we need nourishment. We can look for the signs of both emotional hunger vs physical hunger to determine what we really need in that moment. Maybe it’s to talk to a friend or to take a walk. Maybe it’s a snack to sustain you until dinner. By taking a moment to pause and bring more awareness to your body’s needs, you can interpret what you really need in the moment.

If you are having trouble differentiating between emotional and physical hunger, send me a DM on Instagram and I’d be happy to share some free resources/advice with you!

  1. […] factors seem to be creating a binge-oriented atmosphere in your life, check out this article on Emotional Hunger Vs Physical Hunger to help you learn to properly decipher what your body is telling you when it sends hunger cues. Too […]

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