Emotional Hunger Vs Physical Hunger: The Psychology Of Eating

Wednesday, Nov 23, 2022 | Lifestyle

Most people will spend their entire lives without actively thinking about the psychology of food, or how this can impact their mental and physical health. Additionally, you may fail to give due importance to the difference between emotional and physical hunger, thereby letting slip the comprehension of a critical aspect related to your respective journey toward being your healthiest self. The fact is that emotional hunger is vastly different from physical hunger, and by wrapping your head around the psychology of eating, you can hack your way toward healthy living.


Table of Contents

  • The psychology of eating: a short guide
  • The fault in our emotions?
  • What is emotional hunger, though?
  • How do you know if you’re an emotional eater?
  • Why do you need to know all this, though?
  • Understanding physical hunger
  • How do you spot the difference between emotional and physical hunger?
  • Breaking the cycle


The psychology of eating: a short guide

The food you consume has an interesting impact on your body in a powerful way. It affects your mood, feelings, relationship with your body, body image, eating patterns, and even your mental health. It’s not entirely impossible to picture how a negative relationship with food – where food is seen as a coping mechanism – can trigger patterns of overeating, that, in turn, prove to be detrimental to your physical health. When your physical health is thus impacted, numerous factors work in tandem to negatively affect your mental health.

Not only is this dangerous in the long run, but it can also be cyclical, and a slippery slope into developing a hazardous relationship with food and your body. However, understanding why you’re hungry, what you’re consuming, and the wiring of your mindset that is leading you to a particular meal can help greatly. This is where emotional hunger and physical hunger enter the conversation.



The fault in our emotions?

Oftentimes, when you reach for a snack, you may be doing so mindlessly, without any active thought being put into why you’re about to consume that treat. You may have already had lunch, but a voice inside your head wants you to grab a pack of chips on which you can munch. At times like these, you must ask yourself: why am I reaching for this snack, and how will this impact my body?

This may seem like a daunting line of questioning, but it is, in fact, quite vital, especially if you’ve embarked on a path that has healthy living as its final destination. This is because a lot of the time, you may be reaching for food while experiencing some form of emotional turbulence.



What is emotional hunger, though?

Simply put, emotional hunger is the desire to consume food born out of any positive or negative emotion. Negative emotions, such as anger or sorrow, and positive emotions, such as joy or exhilaration, can trigger a need to reach for food that your body does not need. It stems from a desire to cope with a certain emotion, and it may even arise due to childhood patterns where food was set up to be a reward.

Emotional hunger can be instantaneous and can make you crave specific food items that double as your “comfort” food. It sends you into a mindless eating frenzy, and leaves you dissatisfied, regardless of what you’ve consumed. When the wave passes, you’re left feeling guilty and, perhaps, powerless.

Additionally, emotional hunger can manifest as you think of a food item that seems appealing at the time, despite the fact that you’ve just eaten, or aren’t actually hungry. Perhaps, you impulsively buy something that you see an advertisement for and feel compelled to finish eating it because you spent money on it. Even a mention of your favorite food can double as a cue for emotional hunger.



How do you know if you’re an emotional eater?

There’s no set checklist for this, but you can ask yourself a few questions the next time you’re craving food, or feel the need to bite into a juicy burger right after you’ve had a filling salad.

  • Do you find yourself looking at food as a reward? Perhaps, when you were younger, food was made to be a prize, like the ice cream your parents would buy you after an exceptional academic performance.
  • Do you search for food on a full stomach? You know you’ve just eaten, but you feel that having a bar of chocolate will really make the meal worthwhile. You have it, and you still feel dissatisfied.
  • Do you use food to make yourself feel better? Perhaps, you angrily chomp down on some fried goods after a fight. Or, you have to keep bags of popcorn with you while watching something scary – maybe even out of habit.
  • Do you eat when you’re feeling stressed? Maybe, you have a huge deadline coming up, and you find yourself loading up on large amounts of coffee.
  • Do you see food as a friend? People joke about being obsessed with food, and that makes for a great Instagram feed, but is your flirtatiousness with food bordering on being dangerous?
  • Do you feel like you simply cannot hold yourself back around food? Perhaps, you go to buffets and think, “This is how I get my money back.” Lo and behold, the next thing you know, you’re sitting in front of a pile of food, mindlessly consuming, with your eyes darting around to see what you’ll heap onto your plate next.

If you find yourself affirming most of these questions, you’re very likely to be an emotional eater. The good news is that now that you have this awareness, you can work toward undoing these patterns.



Why do you need to know all this, though?

Emotional eating follows a cyclical pattern, and awareness is just the first step you need to take to strengthen your route toward healthy living. You must understand a pattern in order to break it, after all.

With emotional hunger, the cycle can look something like this: an event takes place that either upsets you or makes you believe that you need a reward or a coping mechanism. You reach for food, due to an overwhelming urge that you simply cannot curb. You give in, consuming more than you should. This leads to you feeling immense guilt or sorrow, perhaps due to your lack of control – negative emotions that set the cycle in motion once more.


Understanding physical hunger

A great way to begin differentiating between emotional and physical hunger is to comprehend what these two terms mean. By now, you should have a fair understanding of emotional eating, its link to feelings such as stress, and its cyclical nature. However, you must also understand physical hunger in order to consume food when necessary.

Physical, or biological hunger, is your brain signaling a need for the consumption of food. This is when your body actively needs sustenance, and you providing it with the required nutrients can satiate this need. It comes with its own set of signs, such as physical sensations in your stomach that vary according to the severity of hunger. You may also feel this in your chest, or through a drop in your energy levels. Your mood may change, and you may find focusing on tasks difficult. You could even feel dizzy, nauseous, or experience a headache.



How do you spot the difference between emotional and physical hunger?

Fortunately, key differences between these two forms of hunger can help you circumvent one while avoiding the other. Emotional hunger may begin randomly and suddenly, whereas physical hunger is more gradual in nature, and will occur hours after your last meal. The former may lead to specific cravings and their satisfaction, whereas the latter can be more non-specific, sending aforementioned physical signs that indicate its presence. Emotional hunger is more mindless in nature, encouraging you to keep eating even when you’re full, but signs of physical hunger dissipate when you’re full or satisfied.



Breaking the cycle

You’ve laid the groundwork by forging an understanding. Mindful action is the next best step. When you identify your triggers for emotional hunger, you can draw a map that breaks the code for an overarching pattern. This will help break the cycle of emotional eating.

Is it stress that’s leading you to feel emotional, or is it boredom? Are you repressing emotions, or are you using food as a source of comfort? Are there certain social influences that are triggering your emotional hunger? Asking these questions will help and can propel you to take action accordingly. But, what would that action even look like?

  • Asking yourself all the right questions should be a great place to start. When you find  yourself reaching for food, ask yourself questions like, “Am I actually hungry?” or “When was the last time I ate?” This internal dialogue, alongside the right set of questions, will help you determine if you’re legitimately hungry and experiencing physical hunger, or if you’re bored, stressed, or eating away your feelings by giving into emotional hunger.
  • Dealing with the root cause of emotional upheaval will help. Do you need to set healthier boundaries at work? Are you burning the midnight oil while constantly munching on food you don’t need? Are you frequently going to places with your friends where you can’t stop overeating? Address the issue head-on and wean yourself off accordingly.
  • Developing healthier coping mechanisms will come in handy. If you find yourself grabbing a snack when you’re bored, identify the act, and opt for something else instead. Take a walk, do some jumping jacks, skip, or simply have an internal pep talk that convinces you that you do not need food at that moment.
  • Remove all temptations from your home. Are you stocking up on junk food for when you feel like you may need it? Stock up on healthy, whole foods instead. This will also create a sense of responsibility. After all, you have whole foods waiting to be consumed. With limited options, you’re more likely to reach for the fruits, vegetables, or nuts you have stored.
  • Ask for help. If you feel like you can have an open, constructive conversation about this with your family and friends, do not hesitate to reach out. Moreover, should you feel that you need professional help, do not be afraid to seek it.
  • Wean yourself off gradually. The change will not occur overnight. Do not be too hard on yourself in the process. Set realistic expectations, so that you do not find yourself in turmoil over any setback.
  • Keep a diary that logs in what you’re eating and how you’re feeling. This will create a sense of responsibility because you’ll be accountable to yourself and your journal. Moreover, you will be able to see how certain food items make you feel, and can even map your progress. The Healthi app, for example, doubles as the perfect food diary. It will log in your meals, count your calories, help you enter details of your activities, track your progress, and give you space to enter notes that help you chart your mood and feelings. It’ll even give you tailor-made meal plans, and suggest recipes you can try.



To sum up, the battle against emotional hunger may seem like an uphill trek, but with this increased understanding and a plan of action, you’re well on your way toward combating it and getting closer to the healthy life you’ve been envisioning.