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Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger: What's the Difference?

When was the last time you stopped and thought about why you were eating? In today’s diet culture, there are a million different people informing you on what you should eat. One of the key parts of intuitive eating and discovering your hunger and fullness is also taking a moment to recognize what is driving you to eat and what your intention is behind your nutrition.

Why is that important? By bringing intention around our food choices, we are able to make more mentally and physically satisfying choices for ourselves!

What is Physical Hunger?

Physical hunger (biological hunger) occurs when the brain is communicating a need for food/energy. Unlike what diet culture tells us, the only way to address our physical hunger is to EAT! There are so many tricks on social media and online that tell you how to “dull” or suppress physical hunger, but these methods will never fulfill what your body actually needs (aka food). In the end, physical hunger when suppressed will only come back with more intensity than before.

Physical hunger is often felt through physical sensations in the body around 2-4 hours after your last meal. You may recognize an empty feeling in your stomach, grumbling or growling. You might also find that you are thinking about food more often. Some other familiar signs of hunger include irritability, mood swings, low energy, or headaches. When you fulfill your physical hunger, you will feel a sense of satisfaction. Remember that every person may experience hunger cues differently and part of the journey of intuitive eating is discovering what those look like for you individually.

What is Emotional Hunger?

Emotional hunger comes from a desire for food stemming from some type of emotion. Oftentimes, emotional hunger is associated with negative emotions such as stress, anger, sadness, or boredom. This type of hunger may stem from a need to soothe or distract from more difficult feelings. Although negative emotions do play a role in emotional hunger, many times this hunger can also come from feelings of happiness, joy, excitement, or celebration! Emotional hunger often comes on rapidly, is immediately intense, and is independent of your last meal. You might also find that in emotional hunger you desire or crave a specific food instead of food in general which is the case in physical hunger.

It is OK to feel emotional hunger, in fact it is a part of being human. Eating in some situations is a tool to feel better as it releases serotonin. A quick note here is that eating to satisfy an emotion is not necessarily a bad thing. However, if eating becomes your primary coping mechanism and is associated with feelings of guilt/shame or you find you are consistently eating past your fullness, there may be other coping mechanisms or mindfulness that could come into the equation.

How to practice feeling the difference

Feeling the difference between the two is confusing! Here are some questions to ask yourself to bring awareness around the difference.

  • What feelings and sensations am I feeling and noticing?

  • What have I eaten so far today? Have I nourished myself adequately?

  • Am I feeling any intense emotions or feelings from today?

  • Am I craving a specific food or does any type of nutrition sound appealing?

Sometimes, you may say YES, a fun food right now sounds really good! And that’s great! When we bring intention around our eating, we are then able to best recognize what our body and our mind needs. Remember that every person’s journey with this is so unique. Give yourself grace as you delve more into this principle.

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