Hunger is a natural biological phenomenon. It is a craving or an urgent need for food. 

Hunger can be of two types: either physical or emotional. There is a big difference between the two. 

What is Emotional Hunger?

Emotional hunger is when you turn to food to avoid uncomfortable emotions.  Typically, it means that you eat based on how you feel, rather than what your body needs. Usually, we can recognize emotional hunger by realizing some of our feelings such as happiness, sadness, guilt, frustration.

Examples of emotional hunger include:

  • Eating for comfort or out of loneliness or sadness.
  • Eating out of boredom
  • Eating to sooth anxious or depressed feelings
  • Are you eating to suppress an aching heart?

Many people struggle with emotional eating, and have learnt to break free from the cycle in order to develop healthy eating habits and a healthy relationship around food. 

If you think you often feel emotionally hungry, try the following tips to combat it:

  • Interview your hunger and give yourself five minutes to pause before acting on it.
  • Identify if you need to eat because of true hunger or if you’re just feeling hungry because of emotion.
  • Distract yourself or take a break from what you’re currently doing.

However, if you feel these tips are not helping you control emotional eating, it is best you consult a doctor. Many times there are physical conditions that stand in the way of helping you understand your hunger like thyroid issues or lack of sleep. Other times there might be emotional obstacles regarding mental health. And other times, you might just be confused and not know what to eat since there’s so much information out there.

What is Physical Hunger?

Physical hunger on the other hand is when you eat when your body signals to you that you are actually hungry.  Usually, when we are hungry, we are able to stop eating when we are satisfied and before we are uncomfortably full. 

Physical hunger is much easier to recognize as it is based on our physical sensations.

Examples of physical hunger include:

  • Your stomach growls and you feel that hollow sensation in your stomach
  • Your body feels weak or energy seems to suddenly go down
  • Blood sugar gets low and you may begin to feel shaky
  • Feeling of light-headedness
  • Irritability
  • Headache
  • Having a hard time concentrating

Physical hunger develops gradually and is felt in your stomach. 

The following table summarizes the difference between emotional and physical hunger.

Emotional Hunger Physical Hunger
It develops quickly.It develops gradually. 
Absent-minded eating. Eating mindfully.
Leads to overeating.Does not lead to overeating. 
Craving for something specific or comforting. Is open to options- lots of things sound good.
This kind of hunger isn’t satisfied with a full stomach.This kind of hunger stops when you are full. 
It occurs several hours after a meal. It can occur anytime. There is no particular time for it.

In conclusion, it is important for you to know your cues or signs to emotional and physical hunger in order to feel more in control of your eating and less dependent on certain foods to help your moods and emotions.  

Eventually, you will be able to determine how hungry or full you actually are.  You can train yourself to stop eating before you are too full and to not turn to food when you are not actually hungry.  Check in with yourself during your meal. Realize when you feel satisfied, even if it means not finishing your meal.  Figure out an end of the meal ritual you can do to signal that you are finished. For instance, you can try putting your napkin over your plate, pushing the plate away, or simply say that you are done out loud.  



Sakshi is a Psychologist with expertise in research and writing, she can make the most complex topic sound simple! She has completed MSC in Counselling Studies from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Also, She loves books and music and forgets the world once earphones are plugged in.