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Physical or emotional hunger, what's the difference?

We all have to eat to survive; food is an essential part of our everyday living, but sometimes food can be so much more than a source of nutrition and energy. It’s ingrained in our family history, our work and social lives. For most people, food carries some sort of meaning, whether that’s pleasure, comfort, tradition, shame, or a combination of them all.

Wendy Byard - Binge eating cake

Most of us have celebrated a special occasion with a cake, maybe a birthday, a wedding or at Christmas. We’ve maybe ended a tough day with our favourite snack, or had fun with loved ones making a special meal. Finally, most of us can't afford to go out for a meal and leave a lot of it on the plate when we’ve had enough, it feels eater wasteful or not polite. In other words, very few of us haven’t engaged in emotional eating, or eating for some reason other than physical hunger. It’s nothing to feel ashamed of, it’s very normal to overeat, or eat for pleasure from time to time, especially when it feels like your life lacks pleasure in other ways.

But, although food does offer pleasure, that pleasure isn’t sustainable. If your first impulse is to open the fridge whenever you’re stressed, upset, angry, lonely, exhausted or bored you might be disgusting the fact that you’re feeling guilty, self-conscious and disconnected from your body; stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the problem is something that you’ve never really addressed.

You may also worry about your weight and physical health. It’s very common to yo-yo diet, you can feel frustrated and defeated, asking yourself why you can’t seem to change your relationship with food. You are not alone in this experience, and your relationship with food doesn’t define your character or worth, even if you believe it does.

To improve your relationship with food and, most importantly your relationship with yourself, it’s important to learn more about what emotional eating is, what it isn’t, and which specific emotions or triggers might cause you to overeat.

Wendy Byard - The difference between emotional and physical hunger

What Is the Difference Between Physical and Emotional Hunger?

Our food cravings and our mood are often deeply connected. It can be difficult to tell when we’re emotionally hungry and when we’re truly, physically hungry, especially if we’re used to dealing with our feelings by turning to food. It can often be impossible to remember what being hungry actually feels like.

If we feel stressed, irritated and worn out after a long day at work, we might have a craving for something warm, rich and soothing. But in reality we may not be hungry at all, we might just be looking for comfort and stress relief, so we turn to food to get the feeling we’re longing for. However, it’s just as likely that we could be ending the day feeling physically hungry, especially if we didn’t take time for lunch, so we need to notice the signs - we need to know the difference between emotional and physical hunger and to recognise the signs of each.

Physical Hunger

  • Originates in the stomach and can lead to stomach growling or stomachache

  • Can lead to increased salivation

  • Can cause lightheadedness or feelings of physical weakness/exhaustion

  • Usually comes on gradually

  • Often makes food smell and taste better

  • Is satisfied when your stomach is full

Also be aware that you might also experience some of these sensations when you are thirsty, not hungry. Don’t forget to drink water and stay hydrated throughout the day.

Emotional Hunger

  • Originates in the head

  • Can prompt daydreaming about dinner even as you eat lunch, or cause obsessive thoughts about food throughout the day

  • May cause you to crave junk food or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush. You feel like you need cake or crisps, and nothing else will do.

  • Usually comes on suddenly

  • Can feel like emptiness in your core

  • Can stem from a lack of satisfaction, security, and peace

  • Might be hunger for connection, comfort, pleasure, entertainment, reward, stress relief, a sense of control, or freedom

  • Is not satisfied with food, no matter how much

We overeat to fill that sense of emptiness, even when our hunger is actually for something other than food. And then, we often feel guilty for eating more than we wanted to, contributing to an ongoing cycle of emotional distress.

Emotional eating is just one type of overeating, and in the next post I’m going to continue the discussion by introducing compulsive and binge eating.


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