I am always feeling peckish… But am I really hungry? The differences between physical and emotional hunger, according to Vita Hospital psychologist Denitsa Anastasova

Usually when we start feeling hunger, we quickly and without much thought aim to satiate that hunger. But are we really hungry? Is this feeling an actual physiological, bodily need, or is it telling of some sort of emotional need we are experiencing at that moment? There is a clear difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger and learning to distinguish them helps us have better control over the situation and thus help us regulate our weight. Using eating as a coping mechanism for emotional stress, can be a risky factor in managing a healthy weight and can lead to obesity.
Physical hunger arises from the body’s need for energy, nutrients, the feeling develops and builds up at a slow pace and it feels like your stomach is hollow and empty. Commonly people tend to start feeling hungry after 3 to 4 hours after they had last eaten. It is often accompanied by stomach rumbling, fatigue, stomach pain, dizziness, difficulty concentrating and even headaches. When it comes to quenching physical hunger people are often mindful of their food choices and whenever they start feeling like they are full, they will for most of the time stop eating and avoid overeating.
Emotional hunger on the other hand, often arises in the form of an emotionally driven desires and thoughts, which often makes us less mindful of the food choices we make and the amounts we consume. People often turn to food for comfort, to escape unpleasent emotions or to enchanche good ones. This means we eat in accordance with how we feel and not according to our bodily needs.
Whenever people feel emotionally hungry, they often crave specific food, while feeling physically hungry, they would go for mostly anything, because everything sounds good at that time. As opposed, while emotionally hungry people tend to crave foods high on fats or sugar, that would satisfy them on an emotional level and make them happy. We believe that, a piece of cheesecake, chocolate or a pizza are the only things that will gratify our needs at the time. Emotional hunger comes on spontaneously and leads to impulsive decisions. It’s often associated with specific activities, or specific times of the day and often the process on consumption is done unconsciously.
Before we realize it, we have eaten a whole packet of crisps or a carton of ice cream, without paying any attention and enjoying it fully. Emotional hunger is not satisfied, when we are full, we carry on eating, because with each bite we want more and more. Often people eat until they feel the discomfort related to overeating.
Physical hunger, on the other side, rarely leads to overeating, when we feel we have filled our nutritional needs, most people would stop eating, as they are satisfied. Instead of a rumbling and achy stomach, we feel hunger as a desire, we can’t get out of our head, focusing on specific textures, tastes and smells. Emotional hunger sadly often leads to regret, guilt and shame. People would go on to criticize and blame themselves for the unnecessary calories, the lack of willpower and for not resisting the temptation. When we eat to satisfy our physical hunger, we are much less likely to feel guilty or ashamed, because we are simply satisfying our body’s needs.
When we are vulnerable, exhausted, stressed, bored or facing a problem, we may consciously or unconsciously turn to food for comfort. Emotional hunger is a way of suppressing or avoiding unpleasant emotions, but even when people fill those cravings, that doesn’t solve their frustrations, eating might make us feel better for a short time, but the underlying feelings that provoked it will still be there. If other coping mechanisms are lacking, one can enter a vicious cycle of unpleasant emotions, in response to which one eats, then feels ashamed and guilty. And since he doesn’t know how to deal with them in any other way, he again applies the well-known strategy of eating. So he ends up with two problems, that are codependent – with his feeling, which he hasn’t dealt with, and with being overweight.
The first step to taking back control and regain our confidence is learning to recognize the two types of hunger. This happens by being more observing of our ourselves and asking ourselves questions – how long has it been since our last meal, how did the hunger start, what happened before that, how do I feel, am I craving a particular food, etc.? If we determine that the hunger is not physical, the next step is to recognize the emotions and choose a healthier coping mechanism, to help us work through it. Getting to know yourself is a process, that takes time and effort, but it’s worth it and gets easier with practice.