Is it physical hunger or emotional hunger?

August 30, 2012 BY: LISA

Emotional Hunger

Emotional eating is eating in response to emotions…makes sense. But what role is the food playing and why do we choose food?

Food is used in emotional times for different reasons for each person:

  • As a medication
  • As a means of controlling something in life when all else is out of control
  • To mask feelings you might be trying to avoid
  • To deal with pain and hurt by taking pleasure in eating

If you are trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight then emotional eating is a real problem because while it may make you feel better momentarily in the long run it usually winds up with shame and guilt feelings.

In Brian Wansink’s book ‘Mindless Eating’ (Hay House 2010) he puts forward the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger really nicely:

Physical Hunger Emotional Hunger
Builds gradually Develops suddenly
Strikes below the neck Above the neck
Occurs several hours after a meal Unrelated to time
Goes away when full Persists despite fullness
Eating leads to feeling of satisfaction Eating leads to guilt and shame

Some people I have spoken to describe a feeling in their stomach when they are experiencing emotional hunger.

Case Study: Eve argued that she needed to eat after dinner as she had a feeling in her stomach. The fact that she had just eaten a satisfying meal did not alter her opinion about her hunger. When she went away to question if she was really hungry she discovered that in fact the feeling in her stomach was anxiety rather than hunger. So it was true that she had a feeling below the neck but it wasn’t hunger and did tick all the other boxes in the emotional hunger column.

The Centre for Mindful Eating suggests another easy test to work out if what you are feeling is hunger and therefore should be treated with food.

In the box below are some common feelings that help us to know if a need is being met or not.

Needs not met Needs met
Afraid Confident
Annoyed Inspired
Dissatisfied Excited
Disquiet Hopeful
Embarrassed Peaceful
Angry Refreshed

If you identify your mood after eating to be similar feeling to the needs not met column then it’s probably true that you were not physically hungry and that food was not what you really needed.

So it’s time to be honest with yourself about what you really need and try to take action to make things happen differently.

If you’ve identified that you tend to eat for emotional hunger then make a list of things that you can do instead. Make sure it’s a list of many varied activities so there is an appropriate choice for all times of day and any kind of mood.

Here’s a start:

  • Read a book
  • Have a shower
  • Watch TV/DVD
  • Give yourself a manicure
  • Phone a friend
  •  Listen to music
  • Go for a walk
  •  Do a craft activity
  • Clean out a cupboard
  •  Fold some clothes/do the ironing
  • Have a bubble bath

Remember when you are trying to change a long term habit, like eating when you are emotional, it may not work every time but it is worth keeping up the effort.

Good Luck!


Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD)



All enquiries, Lisa 0413 956 107 Appointments 1300 725 806
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