Physical Hunger vs. Emotional Hunger – What’s the Difference?

While eating behaviors and attitudes about food are highly individual, one thing remains constant: we’ve all felt hungry before, whether for physical or emotional reasons. Let’s break down exactly the differences between physical hunger vs. emotional hunger and what you can do to reduce emotional eating!

Physical hunger is the biological drive to eat that is driven by physiological cues, such as an empty stomach, low blood sugar levels, and other physical sensations. When you’re physically hungry, you may experience symptoms such as growling stomach, lightheadedness, or headaches.

Emotional hunger, on the other hand, is driven by emotional cues, such as stress, boredom, loneliness, or sadness. It is not necessarily related to a physical need for food, but rather a desire to eat in order to cope with emotional issues or to seek comfort. Emotional hunger often leads to cravings for specific foods, like sweets or fatty foods.

While physical hunger is a natural response to the body’s need for nutrients and energy, emotional hunger is often linked to psychological or emotional issues. Understanding the difference between the two types of hunger can help you make healthier food choices and learn to manage your emotions in a more constructive way.

Distinguishing between the two may seem straightforward, but in our fast-paced, food-focused culture, many people struggle to identify where their hunger stems from – how do you know if your hunger is physical or emotional? This disconnection can lead to feeling out of touch with your body, overeating or undereating.

Learning how to differentiate between them can have a positive impact on our relationship with food and physical health. Luckily, science is on our side with an abundance of research on the topic and resources available for those feeling stuck. 

What is Physical Hunger?

Under normal circumstances, physical hunger is an involuntary sensation triggered by a “low-energy” state. While it can be unpleasant, the feeling of physical hunger is an indicator that your internal systems are communicating with one another effectively!

When the body is in a low energy state, secretion of “hunger hormones” increases.1 

What are the hunger hormones?

  • Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells in the body that helps to regulate appetite and metabolism. Leptin tells us when we are full and done eating.
  • Ghrelin is a hormone produced in the stomach that stimulates hunger. 
  • Both leptin and ghrelin play important roles in regulating appetite and weight control in the body.

Ghrelin is our body’s hunger hormone. It works to stimulate feelings of hunger and prepare the body for food. 

  • The main hunger hormone, Ghrelin, starts its journey in the gut. 
  • From there, Ghrelin travels through the bloodstream up to the hypothalamus of the brain to stimulate appetite. 
  • To prepare the body for its next meal, the muscles of the digestive system begin to contract and gastric acid secretion increases.2 
  • This is what leads to the telltale signs we need to eat: a gnawing feeling of emptiness and “growling” in the stomach. Lightheadedness, trouble focusing and irritability may also occur.

There are many other signs of physical hunger that are not just a “rumbling stomach”. You’ll want to spend some time figuring out your personal hunger cues. For example, many people notice a small headache, “fuzziness” instead of focus, or a drop in energy levels. 

Other signs of physical hunger:

  • Headache
  • Low energy
  • Poor focus
  • Lack of motivation
  • Depressed mood
  • Quick temper (aka Hangry)
  • Weakness 
  • Shakiness
  • Light-headedness

Avoiding physical hunger cues for a prolonged period of time can lead to low blood sugar, fainting, nausea, electrolyte imbalances and nutrient deficiencies. 1,2  In chronic cases, these unwanted side effects can pose significant risk to one’s health and may require ongoing medical surveillance.

One of the main differences between emotional and physical hunger is that physical hunger will resolve once you have eaten a good meal. Ghrelin levels drop and “satiety” hormones increase to feel fullness. Some examples of satiety hormones include Leptin, Insulin, GLP-1 and 2.1,3 

What is Emotional Hunger?

With emotional hunger, the main catalyst is a feeling. If you are emotionally hungry, you may use food to cope with a negative emotion or to increase the feeling of pleasure during a positive emotional state. 

Emotional hunger occurs independently of energy levels or physical hunger signs, meaning you can still experience it even if you’ve recently ate a balanced meal. Despite this, the feeling can still rival the intensity of physical hunger.

While research on this type of hunger has historically been more difficult to attain due to the stigma attached to emotional eating, the scientific community recognizes emotional hunger as a very real, complex phenomenon. 3 

Emotional hunger may occur as an isolated event, but is far more likely to be a chronic pattern. In the latter setting, multiple hormonal fluctuations occur. Perpetually high levels of the stress hormone cortisol counteract the effect of satiety hormones such as insulin4  and GLP-15, and increased levels hunger hormone Ghrelin.6  

In other words, feeling stressed can actually create increased feelings of hunger. 

To complicate matters more, attenuating emotional hunger temporarily increases feel-good hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine.7 The brain begins to associate emotional eating with a surge in these hormones, reinforcing the food-seeking behaviors.3,2

There’s a reason you use emotional eating as a coping skill: it actually does work! But only in the short term… Once the initial rush wears off, we often feel worse later.

The experience of emotional hunger can be confusing and seemingly never-ending. The initial rush from eating may help the emotion to some extent, but the effect is fleeting and the aftermath may be distressing. Emotional eating can also lead to health problems such as weight fluctuations, negative self-image, high blood sugar, thyroid dysfunction, social isolation, anxiety or depression.8

Key Differences Between Physical Hunger vs. Emotional Hunger

Now that we’ve covered the physiology behind the different types of hunger, let’s dive into the main differences between the two:

Gradual vs Sudden 

With physical hunger, symptoms tend to start out mild and gradually increase as the body continues to go without food. 

In contrast, the onset of emotional hunger is rapid and intense, and will remain this way until food is eaten or the emotion is managed in another way.

Immediate Gratification vs. Can Wait if Necessary 

We often ignore the initial signs of physical hunger if we are busy with other tasks. As long as you eat in a timely manner, waiting a bit to eat should not cause distress, whereas emotional hunger presents with an unpleasant sense of urgency to eat immediately.

Specific Cravings vs. General Food Preferences

The main focus of a physically hungry individual is to obtain food in any capacity, while someone experiencing emotional hunger may have very specific cravings, often for hyperpalatable foods high in fat, sugar, or sodium.4,2 Think: major cravings for pizza, ice cream, fried foods, etc. We are wired to crave these!

The emotionally hungry person may refuse foods that don’t align with their cravings, whereas a truly physically hungry person will be far less selective.

Emotional Triggers vs. Physical Sensations 

The side effects of physical hunger are predictable and easily distinguished from other conditions. 

On the other hand, the sensations associated with emotional hunger are often unpredictable and variable based on factors such as your triggers, environment, and mental wellbeing.3,3 

A summary of the differences between physical hunger vs. emotional hunger

How to Deal with Physical Hunger vs. Emotional Hunger 

Stuck in the cycle of emotional hunger? You’re not alone. While everybody’s experience differs and mileage may vary when it comes to trying out different methods to combat urges, read below for some dietitian-approved hacks to help manage emotional hunger.

Take inventory

Many people find creating a checklist or journaling to be an extremely helpful tactic. Ask yourself questions about your emotional state, when your last meal was, and what the hunger feels like. Yes, you’ve already concluded that your hunger is not physical, but seeing the reality of the situation written out can help further reinforce that eating is not a solution to the emotion.

Distract yourself

This could mean going for a walk, playing with a pet, reading, housework, watching a show, etc. Taking your mind off of the craving by dabbling in a different type of coping mechanism is one of the most tried and true tactics, and provides positive mental reinforcement.

Sit with It

While the impulses associated with emotional hunger can be uncomfortable, it can be helpful to take a step back and allow yourself to examine the issue for what it is. That could mean giving yourself 5 or 10 minutes to sit with the emotion and see if the craving subsides. 

Tap into Your Support System

Support from others is one of the most underutilized tools in navigating emotional eating due to the associated embarrassment or shame. However, if it is within your comfort zone, talk it out with a family member or a friend! If you’re not ready to discuss, even just calling up a friend to talk about a different topic can help ease your mind.

Practice Mindfulness

Also a great method for managing anxiety, mindfulness is a simple and effective way to separate yourself from negative feelings and urges by focusing on the present. Find a room or area in your house where you won’t be disturbed, close your eyes and focus on your senses and breathing. If you find it difficult to do this on your own, a guided meditation video or app can be helpful.

What If You End Up Eating Due to Emotional Hunger?

If you end up giving into the craving, it’s ok! Even those with the best intentions and coping mechanisms will at some point find themselves succumbing to the urges. Beating yourself up over it serves no purpose as you’ve already engaged in the behavior. Acceptance is key.

It can be helpful to look at the situation from a different perspective. For example, speak to yourself the way you would speak to a friend who just went through an episode. Would you tell them that they’re weak or gluttonous? Of course not! You would likely offer them compassion and support. 

Many people find it hard to resume regular eating patterns after giving into their emotional hunger, but it is SO important to prevent it in the future. Nourish your body regularly and engage in physical activity that you genuinely enjoy. Many people find that once they start prioritizing this, the voice of emotional hunger begins to quiet down.

Final Thoughts

All forms of hunger are valid. The most appropriate way to manage hunger will vary depending on whether it’s physical hunger vs emotional hunger, but no type of hunger should be ignored. 

For physical hunger, eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. For emotional hunger, try an alternate method to cope, and be kind to yourself if it does not work right away. When in doubt, reach out to a professional. If you think you would benefit from one-on-one support, feel free to complete this form to schedule a free call to chat about working together. 

Remind yourself to take these simplified steps to practice eating when you’re physically hungry and finding other ways to soothe your emotional hunger:

  • Take inventory
  • Distract yourself
  • Sit with It
  • Tap into Your Support System
  • Practice Mindfulness

Sources

  1. Colaizzo-Anas T. Nutrient Intake, Digestion, Absorption, and Excretion. In: Mueller CM, ed. The Aspen Adult Nutrition Support Core Curriculum. ASPEN; 2017: 3-25.
  1. Mueller TD, Nogueiras R, Andermann ML, et al. Ghrelin. Mol Metab. 2015;4(6):437-460. doi:10.1016/j.molmet.2015.03.005
  1. Novack S. The Neuroscience of Emotional Eating. Discover Magazine. December 29, 2021. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.discovermagazine.com/mind/the-neuroscience-of-emotional-eating
  1. Why stress causes people to overeat. Harvard University. February 15, 2021. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat
  1. Bloemendaal L, et al. Emotional eating is associated with increased brain responses to food-cues and reduced sensitivity to GLP-1 receptor activation. Obesity. 2015;23(10): 2075-2082. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.21200
  1. Azzam I, Gilad S, Limor R, Stern N, Greenman Y. Ghrelin stimulation by hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activation depends on increasing cortisol levels. Endocrine Connections. 2017;6(8):847-855. doi: 10.1530/EC-17-0212
  1. Ibaja T, Takayanagi Y. Role of oxytocin in the control of stress and food intake. Journal of Neuroendocrinology. 2019; 31: e12700. https://doi.org/10.1111/jne.12700
  1. Van Strien T. Causes of Emotional Eating and Matched Treatment of Obesity. Current Diabetes Reports. 2018; 18(35). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11892-018-1000-x

Written: Emily Ventura, RD, CNSC

Edited: Caroline Thomason, RD CDCES

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