Distinguishing Physical from Emotional Hunger

Distinguishing Physical from Emotional Hunger
Claudette Pelletier-Hannah

“I just ate, so what am I doing in the fridge?”

With the uncertainty and disappointment we are all currently facing with Covid-19 do you find you’re reaching for food more often, just to feel a little better?

It can be difficult to tell the difference between physical and emotional hunger, or to even know what physical hunger feels like, particularly if you’ve dieted for many years and deliberately ignored hunger signals. Or maybe you graze constantly and never allow yourself to feel hungry.

To really discern physical from emotional hunger, start by allowing time for physical hunger to occur. (Of course if you’re diabetic, you should follow the advice of your medical professional.) It could take three to five hours, more or less, depending on what you’ve eaten last. Low-fibre carbohydrates digest much quicker than protein, for example.

When you are physically hungry you might feel weak, empty, lightheaded or shaky. Your stomach might growl or produce mild pain. You won’t be too picky about what to eat when you’re really hungry. As my mother once said, “If you’re hungry you’ll eat a ketchup sandwich.” Ughhh! I never got that hungry.

If you’re physically hungry an apple will likely satisfy you. If it’s emotional hunger perhaps only a cinnamon bun will do.

Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. Physical hunger builds. Emotional hunger doesn’t always end or abate when you have something to eat. You might want something else because, “that didn’t work.” Emotional hunger might have an excuse, or a story attached to why you should eat. “I deserve this.” A strong feeling often triggers emotional eating, but not always. Sometimes it’s boredom, or a habit like TV and potato chips. Cravings often come from uncomfortable feelings, not hunger.

Pay attention to what you’re feeling and notice what you might be telling yourself. It’s a clue to what’s going on for you. What do you really need or want? Then try to act according to what’s true and in your best interest.

Physical hunger should be treated with food. Emotional hunger should be treated with kindness and self-acceptance.

As always, if you need support just holler.