Understanding the differences between emotional vs physical hunger can help you become more aware of what is driving you to eat so you can make more mentally and physically satisfying food choices. 

Food is deeply connected to how we feel. We eat when we’re anxious, tired, sad, and lonely. We also eat when we’re happy, celebrating, and connecting with others. Many people also eat when they are bored or trying to ignore an uncomfortable feeling. 

And of course, we also eat when we’re hungry! This means that our physical and emotional hunger will often occur at the same time. This can make it difficult to identify if it’s emotional vs physical hunger, or a little bit of both.

What is physical hunger?

Most people are familiar with the signs of physical hunger, including:

  • Empty feeling in stomach
  • Grumbling stomach 
  • Thinking about food more often
  • Irritable or mood swings
  • Low energy
  • Headaches

Physical hunger usually begins 2-4 hours after your last meal, and after eating, is accompanied by a sense of satisfaction.

What is emotional hunger?

Compared to physical hunger, emotional hunger often looks a little different. Some common signs of emotional hunger are:

  • Quick onset 
  • Tied to a particular craving
  • Tied to a specific emotion, such as boredom, anxiety, or even joy

Emotional hunger isn’t always a bad thing! It’s actually a normal part of being human. Eating releases serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter, so it makes sense that eating can be used as a tool to help you feel better. 

However, if eating becomes your primary coping mechanism, you might find that you:

  • Turn to certain foods more often than you’d like
  • Frequently eat past fullness
  • Experience feelings of guilt and shame after eating

If this sounds like you, don’t worry! Eating to satisfy your emotional hunger isn’t a bad thing. But if you’re looking to rely on it a little less, some reflection and mindfulness can help.

How to check-in with your hunger

If you struggle to feel the difference between physical and emotional hunger, ask yourself these reflective questions the next time you’re hungry:

  • What sensations or thoughts am I noticing in my body?
  • What exactly do I need right now?
  • Will a balanced meal or snack make me feel better?
  • Could this emotion be handled by calling a friend or going on a walk?
  • Will comfort food leave me feeling better or worse?

Sometimes, the answer might be YES – I do need some ice cream or chips or whatever your fav fun food might be! And that’s okay. The more mindful of our emotions we become, the more intentional we can be about our emotional hunger. 

And remember, there are many physical, mental, and environmental challenges that can impact your ability to check in with your hunger. Please consult your physician or registered dietitian if you have any questions related to your personal situation. 

Contribution by: Sarah Muncaster, Registered Dietitian (RD), MHSc, host of Unsavory.