One of the goals of intuitive eating is learning to recognize physical hunger and fullness cues, and to build skills so you are mostly able to eat in alignment with them. The key word there is mostly, as we are not turning intuitive eating into a hunger/fullness diet here on this blog ☺️ There are plenty of good reasons to eat outside of physical hunger. Plus sometimes we just miss the mark and eat more or less than what our body needs.
That said, part of getting back in touch with hunger and fullness cues is distinguishing between emotional hunger and physical hunger. This can be quite challenging, as there are aspects of each that overlap, and because it is possible to experience intense emotions at the same time as physical hunger – and sometimes because of physical hunger, which I’ll discuss later.
This blog post will discuss emotional hunger vs. physical hunger and how to tell the difference.
What is Physical Hunger?
Physical hunger, sometimes called biological hunger, occurs when your brain is communicating a physical need for food/energy. This motivational state can show up in the body through a range of physical and emotional responses geared at getting you to stop what you’re doing and eat. The only way to address physical hunger is to eat. While there are many diet tricks floating out there aimed at suppressing physical hunger through distractions or temporarily stretching the stomach, these tricks do not address the biological need for food (aka calories). Physical hunger will still be there, lingering in the background, until it rears its head with a much greater intensity.
Physical hunger is often felt through physical sensations. Most people recognize hunger through an emptiness in their stomach, growling, rumbling, or even a gnawing, painful or nauseous feeling when hunger is severe. Physical hunger may also express itself with sensations outside the stomach, like a tightness in the chest or throat. Physical hunger can be felt through fatigue, sleepiness, or difficulty concentrating, and even mood changes like anxiety or anger (aka hanger). Personally, in the morning I rarely experience physical sensations of hunger in the morning, if I go too long without eating I start to get anxious. It’s really common for people to experience physical hunger through emotions like anxiety or a volatile mood.
What is Emotional Hunger?
Emotional hunger is a desire for food that results from an emotion. Most people associate emotional hunger with negative emotions, like stress, sadness, or anger, and certainly emotional hunger often stems from a desire to soothe, numb, or distract from these feelings. However, emotional hunger can also result from positive feelings, like happiness, joy or excitement. Boredom is another feeling that can cause emotional hunger.
Along with physical hunger and emotional hunger, there are two other types of hunger in intuitive eating: taste hunger and practical hunger. You can read about the four types of hunger in intuitive eating here.