People need to eat regularly to replenish their energy and satisfy nutrient and vitamin requirements. However, sometimes people eat even though they aren’t hungry, which may be driven by emotional motivators (like craving chocolate or a bag of chips after a stressful meeting). Keep reading to learn how to understand your appetite signals better and learn how to distinguish between physical and psychological hunger.
Understanding your hunger cues
It’s common to feel hungry several times a day because every muscle, organ, tissue, and cell in your body constantly uses fuel to function. When healthy, they perform vital tasks that keep you well and feeling energized. When fuel reserves start to drop, your body sends hunger cues to signal you to eat.
Psychological hunger is another form of hunger that can affect food and eating behaviors. Most people would describe it as the urge to eat based on their emotions, not their physical hunger. This form of hunger bypasses your hunger cues because you're eating to try and soothe your emotions instead of eating for fuel. Psychological hunger often takes over when people feel stressed, bored, or lonely.
Both types of hunger are part of the human experience, and it’s normal to indulge your psychological hunger occasionally. However, frequently using food to cope with emotions isn’t a long-term solution and can impact your overall health. Without the ability to listen to your hunger and fullness cues, you’re at a higher risk of overeating or consuming extra energy that your body doesn’t need to function, which can contribute to unplanned weight gain and other changes to your health.
Learning how to distinguish between the two hungers will help you feel more in control of your eating choices and can promote a healthy relationship with food.
Physical hunger: signs and signals
Through various physical and mental signs, your body will tell you when it’s hungry. Common signals that you’re hungry include:
- Hunger pangs
- Decreased energy
- Grumbling stomach
- Inability to focus
- Sudden cravings for food
Everybody is unique, and you may experience physical symptoms outside this list. Know that whatever way your body signals hunger — you should listen and eat. Going too long without eating exacerbates the symptoms mentioned above, makes you feel lethargic, and it becomes difficult to control your intake when you finally sit down to eat your next meal.
Psychological hunger: unraveling emotional eating
Psychological hunger can be triggered by emotions or external cues, like smelling popcorn at the movie theater and suddenly wanting your own even though you just ate. Other emotional signals for psychological hunger may include:
For some people, emotions can be tightly interlaced with food cravings because eating can temporarily lead to feelings of satiety, contentment, and peace. However, these positive emotions are fleeting, and the underlying cause for emotional eating should be addressed independently or through therapy.
Mindful eating practices
Mindful eating practices include being present at meals, savoring each bite, and regularly checking in with your hunger and fullness cues. You can start practicing mindfulness at meals by making these simple changes:
- Eat in a comfortable sitting position.
- Turn off screens and remove other distractions while eating.
- Chew slowly, and try to identify at least three flavors while eating.
Signs that you’ve had enough include feeling comfortably full, and food starts to lose flavor appeal (especially compared to your first few bites, which are usually the tastiest.)
How to differentiate between hunger types
You can identify hunger types by checking your body signals before eating. If your stomach is grumbling and you have a headache, you’re likely experiencing physical hunger.
Alternatively, if you’ve just ended a work meeting feeling stressed and suddenly crave pizza or ice cream — you’re likely experiencing psychological hunger or emotional hunger.
Sometimes, you might experience both types of hunger simultaneously, especially if you skipped a meal and had a stressful day. Again, this is normal and happens to everybody — in these moments, try to build a balanced meal that includes half a plate of vegetables, a quarter plate of lean protein, and a quarter plate of high-quality carbohydrates that are rich in fiber.
As you relearn your hunger cues, try to complete journaling and reflective exercises that capture your appetite signals throughout the week. As you write your experiences, include details, such as:
- The timing of your meals
- The type of food you ate
- Any cravings (for both food and drinks)
- How you felt before, during, and after eating
This data can help you identify your types of hunger. Reviewing the information with a registered dietitian may be helpful, too, as they’re trained to provide tailored nutrition advice based on your unique hunger patterns.
Healthy responses to physical hunger
When your body signals physical hunger, you should eat. Choose nutrient-dense foods that are satisfying and filling, which normally include protein, fiber, and healthy unsaturated fats. Here are some examples of balanced, delicious meals:
- Leafy greens with avocado, white beans, diced apple, almonds, and goat cheese. Dress with oil and vinegar.
- A whole-grain bun with roasted chicken, lettuce, tomato, cheese, onion, and olive oil-based mayonnaise.
- Brown rice bowl with turkey meatballs, spinach, sun-dried tomato, cucumber, and red onion. Add some feta and drizzle a yogurt-garlic sauce before eating.
Each meal has balanced macronutrients for energy (protein, carbohydrates, and fat). Ideally, all your meals will include various food groups to help you get enough nutrition and fuel throughout the day.
Coping strategies for psychological hunger
Developing the ability to identify psychological hunger is the first step to changing your behavior. As mentioned above, journaling can help determine if emotions influence your food choices.
The next step is to create a list of alternate activities you can do instead of using food to cope. You’ll need to pick engaging, stimulating, and, most importantly, realistic outlets. Here are some ideas you could try:
- Going out for a walk or a drive
- Calling a friend to chat and catch up
- Starting a puzzle or crossword
- Completing a guided meditation
- Scrapbooking, crocheting, or other hands-on craft ideas
If you’re still feeling emotional and your thoughts are preoccupied with food, you may want to consider professional counseling, either with a mental health expert or a dietitian. They have even more strategies and tools that could be helpful.
Make small changes today
Learning to differentiate between physical and psychological hunger can help restore your relationship with food and may improve your overall health. Increasing mindfulness at meals helps you manage your intake, enjoy your food, and help you stay on track with your health goals.
You can start doing mindful practices today by developing an eating routine that excludes screens and other distractions and taking time to enjoy your meal. If you need more support, consider reaching out to a dietitian.
How do I know if I'm really hungry or just craving a specific food?
Complete a body scan to assess your hunger. If you have stomach pangs, have a headache, or feel shaky — you probably need to eat. If you’re craving food without any of these signs, you may be experiencing psychological hunger. Once in a while, it’s okay to indulge your cravings, and in the future, you can reflect on why you sought that food in the first place.
Can emotional hunger be satisfied with healthy food choices?
Yes, you can satisfy emotional hunger with healthy food choices. A balanced meal or snack with filling and comforting foods may work for you. To feel full, include fiber-rich foods, protein, and healthy fats. An example is a snack plate with whole-grain crackers, cheese, tuna, and a piece of chocolate or cookie.
How can mindful eating contribute to weight management?
Some research studies have shown that increased mindfulness at meals can support weight management goals when combined with other approaches (like increasing exercise.) That’s because mindfulness builds your confidence in recognizing your hunger and fullness cues, which can decrease the chances of overeating.
- Developmental Psychology. The development of interoceptive hunger signals.
- Nutrients. The association of emotional eating with overweight/obesity, depression, anxiety/stress and dietary patterns: a review of current clinical evidence.
- Journal of Obesity. Relationship between emotional eating, consumption of hyperpalatable energy-dense foods, and indicators of nutritional status.
- Obesity Reviews. Mindfulness-based interventions for weight loss: a systematic review and meta-analysis.