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Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger: Recognizing the Difference & Strategies to Manage

Hunger is a natural signal our body provides us with that prompts us to eat and fulfill our nutritional needs. However, not all hunger is the same. There are two distinct types of hunger that we may experience: emotional hunger and physical hunger. Distinguishing between the two is essential for building and maintaining a healthy relationship with food.

What is Emotional Hunger?

Emotional hunger is a strong desire to eat that is prompted by emotions like boredom, stress, sadness, loneliness, or anxiety. Emotional hunger is driven by the need for comfort or distraction. It may arise as an attempt to fill an emotional void versus being physically hungry. As a result of emotional hunger, people may seek “comfort foods” or indulge in unhealthy snacks leading to overeating and potential negative health consequences.

Common Characteristics of Emotional Hunger:

  1. Sudden Onset. Emotional hunger can come on quickly and feel intense as it is triggered by emotional events or stressors.

  2. Specific Food Cravings. Emotional hunger is often associated with certain comfort foods such as sugary treats or fatty foods.

  3. Lack of Physical Cues. You won’t experience the physiological sensations associated with physical hunger.

  4. Persistent Desire to Eat. Emotional hunger may still exist after eating as emotional hunger isn’t driven by a need for nourishment.

  5. Temporary Relief. Eating after feeling emotional hunger may temporarily make you feel comforted or distracted, but it doesn’t address the root cause of the emotional need.

What is Physical Hunger?

Physical hunger is the body’s biological response to a need for energy and nourishment. Physical hunger is prompted by physiological cues. These cues subside by eating a balanced meal that provides energy and essential nutrients.

Common Characteristics of Physical Hunger:

  1. Gradual Onset. Physical hunger generally develops over time.

  2. Stomach Growling. You may experience rumbling sounds or growling noises from your stomach.

  3. Lack of Food Preferences. With genuine hunger, you are more likely to eat a variety of foods versus craving a specific food.

  4. Feeling Lightheaded or Weak. You may feel weak or lightheaded as a result of your body’s need for sustenance.

  5. Satiety after Eating. You will feel physically satisfied after eating and the hunger cues will subside.

Strategies to Manage Emotional Eating

  1. Practice Mindful Eating. Take some time to be present and aware of your hunger cues. Practicing mindful eating can help you identify if you are eating in response to emotion or if you are genuinely hungry.

  2. Develop Emotional Awareness. Acknowledge your emotions. Once you acknowledge the emotions that are there, you can find alternative ways to cope.

  3. Eat Balanced Meals. Ensure your meals are balanced and prioritize protein which can help you feel full. Balanced meals can help maintain stable blood sugar which can reduce hunger cravings.

  4. Maintain An Eating Schedule. Eating regularly can help prevent extreme hunger and reduce the likelihood of engaging in emotional eating.

  5. Keep a Food Journal. Log your eating patterns and the emotions associated with eating. This can help you recognize triggers for emotional eating to help you make better choices.

  6. Pause Before Eating. When you feel the urge to eat, pause and ask yourself why you are eating. Are you genuinely hungry? Is it out of habit? Is there an emotional trigger present that is causing you to eat?

  7. Seek Support. Therapists, counselors, and registered dieticians are an excellent place to start for support.

  8. Find Non-Food Coping Mechanisms. Find alternative ways to manage your feelings that also make you feel good such as talking to a friend, meditation, exercise, listening to music, or journaling. Keeping your hands busy can be helpful as well. Good examples of this are coloring, painting, knitting, or reading.

Understanding and being able to identify the differences between physical and emotional hunger are key to developing a healthy relationship with food. By finding strategies that work for you to cope with emotional triggers, you can create a balanced approach to nutrition and overall well-being.


Support and education is a great place to start with any journey. At Nashville Weight Loss Solutions, we have a full team dedicated to our weight loss patients to support them every step of the way. Regardless of where you are in your weight loss journey, we are here to get you the tools you need to be successful.

To request an appointment with a member of our team, you can our contact form HERE. or by calling our office at 615-342-5820. Learn more about Nashville Weight Loss Solutions and the different support options available HERE.


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