Physical versus Emotional Hunger

I’ve been there. Longing for a bowl of vanilla ice cream drizzled with hot chocolate sauce, sprinkled with nuts, and swirled in a lovely bath of whipped cream. Oh, have I totally been there.

And I will step out from behind my degree and my day job working with eating issues and tell you that there have been plenty of times in which I have lunged into that bowl with wild abandon. And you know what? When I climbed my way out with spoon in hand, I didn’t feel satisfied.

That’s because in the instances in which I found myself eating the ice cream in without physical hunger and mindful awareness, I was engaging in emotional eating. I was searching for something, and, unfortunately enough, I didn’t find it at the bottom of the bowl.

But how, when we’re wrapped up so tightly in the bonds of craving, determine the difference between our physical hunger and our emotional hunger?

It’s not an easy process, particularly for individuals who have struggled with using food for emotional reasons for years or have been caught up in a cycle of binge eating. It’s not easy, but it is possible.

The process involves first committing to a process of careful inquiry. This means being an objective scientist, one who is studying your own internal processes. It’s hard to be objective when we’re talking about ourselves and our own experiences, so struggling initially is natural and doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of this.

With the lab coat on, it’s time to explore whether your cravings represent physical or emotional hunger. Brian Wansink, Ph.D, consumer behavior and food expert, provides some excellent guidelines in his book, Mindless Eating.

He says that physical hunger does the following:

  • Builds gradually
  • Strikes below the neck
  • Occurs several hours after a meal
  • Goes away when full
  • Eating leads to feelings of satisfaction

On the contrary, emotional hunger looks like this:

  • Develops suddenly
  • Strikes above the neck
  • Unrelated to time
  • Persists despite fullness
  • Eating leads to guilt and shame

If you determine that your hunger is physical in nature, well then eat! And yes, you could be physically hungry for a hot fudge sundae. Me? I eat chocolate every day.

But if you discover that your hunger has more emotional roots, it may be time to do a bit more exploring. Asking yourself questions these could get your started:

“What might I be doing or think about right now if I weren’t focused on my hunger?”

“In what other areas of my life am I feeling hungry?”

“Why am I hungry for this particular food?” (hint: there is meaning in our food choices!)

If you find yourself coming up against a brick wall with these questions or continuing to overeat despite making changes in other areas of your life, you may want to talk to your doctor or mental health professional.

Ashley Solomon, Psy.D

I am a therapist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness. Visit Dr. Solomon's body image blog,

2 thoughts on “Physical versus Emotional Hunger

  • December 17, 2010 at 7:24 am

    Ashley, excellent tips. It sounds like one easy way to distinguish physical from emotional hunger is whether or not it’s satiated by the bowl of ice cream.

  • December 14, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    Hi Ashley

    Excellent article. Explains why some people with unresolved issues do binge eating! Have thought that for years and now this article explains it well.

    Haven’t been able to understand why people would purposefully eat their way through so much food and wonder why they are overweight and unhealthy. This goes in part to explaining it.

    Patricia Perth Australia


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