Are You Physically Hungry or Are You Emotionally Hungry?

12 September 2018 | Written by Xenia Ayiotis

When I started to change my relationship with food and eating, it was very hard for me to tell the difference between stomach hunger and emotional hunger. Every time I felt anything in my belly I interpreted it as the need to eat. It can be quite tricky to tell the difference at times because the hollow feeling in your stomach from hunger can be similar to the empty feeling of sadness or loneliness. The cramps or constrictions in our belly from anxiety are similar to the contractions of stomach hunger.  There are many other reasons we eat other than stomach and emotions – I wrote about the 8 hungers that trigger eating.

Here are some signs to help you out next time you are not sure what type of hunger you are experiencing…

Signs of physical or stomach hunger:

  • The need to eat develops slowly and depends on when and what you last ate.
  • The sensation is normally located below the head and around the belly area. Usually the feeling is in the form of a growl or rumble and often accompanied by lightheadedness or low energy.
  • If you are at the rumble stage, it is possible to delay eating – there is no sense of urgency.
  • When you eat, the rumble and pangs go away and you feel more energised.
  • Eating food leads to a feeling of satisfaction and satiety.
  • When comfortably hungry, we normally look for fuel-type foods that are satisfying.
  • We also tend to look at different options to satisfy our hunger. If we let ourselves get too hungry then we are more likely to eat anything fast for quick hunger relief and energy.
  • After you have finished eating you feel satisfied and good and usually there is no guilt associated with eating.

Signs of emotional hunger:

  • The desire to eat develops suddenly and can be intense.
  • It usually comes in the form of a craving for a specific food like chocolate, fast-food or cake.
  • The desire is usually above the neck and located in your mind in the form of a thought.
  • Very often there is a trigger before the urge to eat. The trigger could be tense conversation at home or at work. An unpleasant experience or a sad memory.
  • Emotional hunger increases with certain feelings like frustration, anxiety or irritation and anger.
  • Often, you don’t think of what your food options are and the feeling in your body is so intense that you will just eat anything and foods that are high fat, sugar or salt are generally more appealing at those times.
  • You are very often in a “fog” or unconscious. You are not aware of the taste of the food – eating is on auto-pilot and mechanical – mindlessly putting food in your mouth!
  • Emotional hunger is usually triggered by a thought that looks like “I need something sweet” or “I worked so hard I deserve it” or “I must eat NOW”.
  • The desire to eat is unrelated to your previous meal.
  • The feeling very often persists despite fullness and it is difficult to get a sense of satisfaction.
  • Eating out of emotional hunger often leads to feelings of regret, guilt and shame.

Where it becomes tricky is that often how we experience anxiety in our belly resembles hunger and it can take time to get to know the difference between anxiety and physical hunger. Emotions are felt in the body – sometimes as an emptiness or hollowness that can be interpreted as physical hunger. This is not an exact science and requires practice and experimentation. Emotional eating gets a bad rap. My approach is: it’s okay to eat emotionally. Eating is a coping tool not a coping failure. In the same way you take a headache tablet – why not use food to cope?  Emotional eating doesn’t need to be overeating.

Here are some practical steps you can take to identify which hunger it is…

Start by simply asking yourself:

Am I hungry?
What am I feeling?

Check in to see if the hunger is emotional or physiological.

If you are physically hungry, eat. As mindfully as possible.

If you are unsure ask:

Am I eating out of hunger or habit?

Here are another 27 questions you can ask yourself. If you notice that you are emotionally hungry… Pause. Take a breath. Make a choice.

Do I want to eat or not? (there is no right or wrong here)

If you choose to eat and you are not hungry, do it with no judgement and with as much awareness as possible.

You can also follow the steps of how to eat emotionally mindfully that I wrote in this article.

Eating mindfully is eating with no judgement, with curiosity and compassion for yourself. These are essential ingredients to a peaceful relationship with food.

May you accept how you eat.
May you let go of judgement and criticism.
May you learn to accept yourself with kindness.


Tired of overeating and feeling out of control around food? Dieting and restriction hasn’t worked for you? Ready to end the war with your body?

I can help you find peace and freedom around food, eating and your body:


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