Understanding Physical vs. Emotional Hunger: Take Control Today


Binais Begovic


4 minutes


26 October 2023

article article


In our society, where over-nourishment and comfort take precedence, we often overlook the nuances of hunger, quickly silencing it with food at its slightest indication. But is it truly necessary to satisfy every hunger pang with immediate sustenance? It can be challenging to navigate through the complex signals of hunger, especially when trying to distinguish between physical hunger and emotional hunger. Or what I like to call survival hunger vs comfort hunger. 

Physical hunger is the body’s natural response to needing energy and nutrients, whereas emotional hunger stems from feelings, moods, visual stimuli, and other psychological factors. Gaining awareness and understanding of these two types of hunger can help you establish healthy eating habits, take control over mindless eating that can impede a balanced lifestyle, and take control of your well-being related to indiscriminate food consumption. 

What is Physical Hunger?

Physical hunger is a physiological need for food. When your body needs energy, it sends signals to your brain, resulting in feelings of hunger. These signals include a growling stomach, low energy levels, and irritability. Physical hunger develops gradually over time and can be satisfied by eating any food.

Signs of Physical Hunger:

  • Gradual onset
  • Openness to different types of food
  • Stops when full
  • Leaves feelings of satisfaction

What is Emotional Hunger?

Emotional hunger, on the other hand, is driven by feelings rather than a physical need for food. This type of hunger is often linked to stress, sadness, loneliness, or boredom. Emotional hunger tends to appear suddenly and leads to specific food cravings, particularly for comfort or junk foods. Eating in response to emotional hunger usually results in overeating and is followed by feelings of guilt or shame.

Signs of Emotional Hunger:

  • Sudden onset
  • Cravings for specific foods (usually unhealthy)
  • Eating despite being full
  • Leaves feelings of guilt or shame

Differentiating Between Physical and Emotional Hunger

To manage your eating habits effectively, it is crucial to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger. Start by paying attention to your body’s signals and assessing whether the hunger is gradual or sudden. Ask yourself if you are open to eating various types of food or if you are craving something specific. Additionally, assess your emotional state before reaching for food.

I’m not suggesting that you should completely avoid eating for comfort or pleasure; in fact, I strongly believe in maintaining balance. However, what I want to emphasize is the importance of mindfulness in your eating habits. There is a significant positive impact when you eat intentionally, whether it’s for sustenance or enjoyment.

Strategies to Manage Emotional Hunger

The truth is, it’s perfectly okay to feel hungry; it’s merely a sensation, not a mandate to act immediately. Experiencing discomfort from hunger doesn’t signal an impending catastrophe. Often, our appetite can be triggered by external stimuli such as sights or smells, or even internal states like boredom or stress, regardless of our actual need for food. Personally, during my intermittent fasting routines, I’ve gone days without eating, navigating through a tumultuous ride of psychological and emotional ups and downs. One key insight I’ve gained is that, upon entering ketosis around the 16-hour mark of fasting, my hunger sensations tend to dissipate. It’s an interesting paradox: the more we eat, the more we seem to provoke feelings of hunger. Being in constant pursuit of satiating each and every sensation can lead to a state of perpetual bondage.

Here are some tricks to help you keep your hunger feelings in check. 

1. Practice Mindful Eating:

Focus on your food, savoring each bite, and pay attention to how it makes you feel. This practice helps in recognizing when you are full and allows you to enjoy your food more, potentially leading to eating less.

2. Identify Emotional Triggers:

Understand what emotions or situations drive you to eat when not physically hungry. Keeping a food diary can help in tracking your eating habits alongside your emotions, aiding in identifying patterns.

3. Develop Coping Strategies:

Find alternative ways to deal with your emotions, such as taking a walk, practicing deep breathing, or engaging in a hobby. These activities can provide a distraction and reduce the likelihood of emotional eating.

4. Stay Hydrated:

Sometimes, our bodies can confuse thirst with hunger. Ensure you are drinking enough water throughout the day, which can also help in reducing hunger pangs.

5. Try Black Coffee or Herbal Teas

Incorporating beverages like black coffee or herbal teas can aid in creating a feeling of fullness. Green tea and black tea, which contain caffeine, are known to promote satiety. However, make sure to enjoy these drinks in their pure form—avoid adding sugar, milk, or creamers to maintain their benefits and prevent additional calorie intake.

6. Utilize The Power of Salt

Did you know that a little pinch of salt can go a long way in managing your hunger feelings and revitalizing your energy levels. By placing a small amount of salt on your tongue or adding it to your water, you not only help suppress your appetite but also address potential fatigue due to a lack of electrolytes. This can be particularly beneficial when you are fasting or following a low-carb diet, where electrolyte balance is crucial.

7. Eat More Protein and Healthy Fats

Opting for meals rich in protein and healthy fats can significantly enhance your sense of fullness, helping you to stay satiated for extended periods. Foods such as avocados, nuts, seeds, fish, and lean meats are excellent choices that provide essential nutrients while keeping hunger at bay. Just make sure to keep track of those calories. 

8. Engage in Physical Activty

Distracting yourself from hunger can be effectively achieved through staying active. Whether it’s immersing yourself in work, taking a brisk walk, or picking up a hobby, these activities shift your focus away from hunger and contribute to your overall well-being.

Benefits of Understanding and Managing Hunger

Understanding the difference between physical and emotional hunger and learning to manage them can lead to numerous physical and mental benefits, including:

  • Improved overall health
  • Better weight management
  • Enhanced emotional well-being
  • Reduced stress and anxiety levels
  • Improved self-esteem and body image

Food is Hard

From the moment we are born, we are inundated with rules and guidelines about how and what to eat. As we grow older, these instructions continue to surround us, just as I am offering guidance in this article. To be frank, it’s tough. Establishing a balanced and healthy relationship with food is challenging, yet it’s an indispensable part of mastering life. Food plays a crucial role in our existence, making it vital to cultivate mastery in this area.

As you venture on this path, keep in mind that the ultimate goal is not about adhering to strict diets or following rigid eating patterns; it’s about nurturing a sustainable and harmonious relationship with food. It’s about making conscious and empowered choices that serve your body, mind, and soul.

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