Emotional hunger or real hunger? Keys to both distinguish and manage them

Emotional hunger or real hunger

Hunger is a basic sensation for survival as it usually indicates the need to eat. However, not all the times we feel hungry, it is due to this need.

Nowadays, two types of hunger are referred to: real hunger and emotional hunger. Learning to distinguish between these two types of hunger is essential in order to develop a healthy relationship with food.

What are real hunger and emotional hunger?

Real hunger refers to what we call “physical hunger” and corresponds precisely to the physiological response our brain makes when it needs energy to function properly. The characteristic signs and symptoms of real hunger are as follows:

  • Physical sensation: real hunger originates in the body as a physical sensation in the stomach. It may be felt as a feeling of emptiness.
  • Bodily symptoms: it is common to feel weakness, dizziness or fatigue, as the body is depleting its energy reserves.
  • Any food is acceptable: when you feel real hunger, you are willing to eat a wide variety of foods, without having a preference for any specific food group.
  • Satiety: the feeling of hunger disappears after eating and is replaced by a feeling of satisfaction.

Emotional hunger, on the other hand, is not a response to our body’s physiological needs. It is actually a response to the emotions we feel and our moods. Some common symptoms of so-called emotional hunger include:

  • Cravings for specific foods: emotional hunger tends to be selective. It usually seeks out sugar-rich and refined comfort foods, such as ice cream, chocolate or crisps.
  • Emotional triggers: emotional hunger is often related to negative emotions, such as stress, sadness, anxiety, loneliness or boredom. In fact, eating behaviour is carried out as an avoidance strategy to cope with these emotions.
  • Loss of control (binge eating) and guilt: when experiencing emotional hunger, overeating often occurs, even in the absence of actual physical hunger. This can lead to binge eating that is accompanied by intense guilt feelings afterwards.
  • Lack of satisfaction: although food is eaten, the feeling of emotional hunger is not satiated. Actually it often persists after consuming food.
the feeling of emotional hunger is not satiated

In order to both understand and explore this topic in more depth, you may find it helpful to read other sections of our blog on binge eating disorder.

Keys to distinguish and manage emotional hunger

Managing emotional hunger is possible with both practice and awareness. Some useful strategies or elements to work on are the following:

  • Working on self-awareness: the first step consists of recognising your emotions and trying to identify the cause or trigger of your emotional hunger. Ask yourself if you are really hungry or if you are trying to fill an emotional void or avoid negative emotions.
  • Promoting healthy alternatives / options: it includes finding alternative ways to deal with your emotions, such as meditation, exercise or talking to a friend. It is essential to learn how to manage stress and emotions effectively.
  • Learning about mindful eating: the practice of mindful eating is fundamental. To do this, practice savouring each bite and paying attention to your own satiety cues.

In conclusion, distinguishing between real hunger and emotional hunger is essential to stablish (and maintain afterwards) a healthy relationship with food, but sometimes it cannot be done easily. If binge eating in response to emotional hunger is accompanied by feelings of loss of control and guilt, it is necessary to seek help from a mental health professional specialised in eating disorders.

Bibliographic references
Kerin, J.L., Webb, H. &  Zimmer-Gembeck, M.J. (2019) Intuitive, mindful, emotional, external and regulatory eating behaviours and beliefs: An investigation of the core components. Appetite, 132, 139-146.
Smith, J.M., Serier, K.N.,  Belon,K.E., Sebastian, R.M. & Smith, J.E. (2020). Evaluation of the relationships between dietary restraint, emotional eating, and intuitive eating moderated by sex.  Appetite, 155.

Laura N. Roza Amengual
Psychologist B-02389