Physical vs. Emotional Hunger: How to Differentiate Between the Two?

Recognizing our hunger signals is an essential ability to ensure we are fueling our bodies properly. Without food energy, it isn’t easy to function cognitively, physically, socially, or emotionally. But have you ever noticed a difference between your physical and emotional hunger? 

Physical hunger is defined as a feeling of discomfort caused by a lack of food. Typical cues for this type of hunger include stomach growling, headache, feeling faint or weak, loss of energy, and irritability. When we recognize this physical need and tend to it with food, we’re usually satisfied and relieved. 

Emotional hunger does not stem from a need to eat. It arises from an emotion that we are not giving enough attention to. It is a sense of emptiness, a feeling that something is missing, a craving for comfort. In other words, emotional hunger does not come from the stomach; it’s derived from an unmet emotional need. 

“Emotional hunger does not come from the stomach; it’s derived from an unmet emotional need.”

According to the American Psychological Association, there is a strong connection between negative emotions and food. More than 35% of adults reveal turning to food to cope with their feelings monthly, and more specifically, seeking high-calorie and high-fat foods during periods of stress. This behavioral cycle can lead to different difficulties, including feelings of guilt and shame, heightened anxiety and lower mood, body image concerns, and disordered eating behaviors.

Being able to distinguish our physical hunger from our emotional hunger is, therefore, a valuable skill. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help meet your real needs, whether physical or emotional.

“Did my hunger come suddenly?”

Have your hunger cues developed progressively, or did they appear spontaneously? If your hunger is emerging gradually, eating a snack or a meal will be helpful. However, if the urge to eat is sudden and you are craving specific comfort food, you may be experiencing emotions that need your attention. 

“Is my hunger located in my stomach or not?” 

If you are not experiencing physical signals of hunger (e.g., stomach growling, feeling sluggish, headache), it can be worthwhile to ask yourself how you feel and what you need right now. Is it possible that you are feeling stressed, sad, or simply bored? What would help to cope with these emotions?

“Why am I still hungry after a full meal?”

If your hunger is still present after a typically satisfying portion, it may be necessary to employ coping or self-care strategies to support your emotional needs. These can include reaching out to a friend, journaling, doing breathing exercises, moving your body, or doing an activity you enjoy.

Our hunger signals can inform us on how we are feeling and what we are needing, and it can be valuable to learn how to understand them better. If you need more support to cope with difficult emotions or are experiencing overwhelming body image concerns or problematic eating behaviors, professionals at CFIR can work collaboratively with you. 

Dr. Karine Côté, D.Psy., C.Psych. is a psychologist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR). Dr. Côté provides psychological services to individual adults and couples experiencing a wide range of psychological and relationship difficulties related to mood and anxiety disorders, trauma, eating disorders, sleep disruptions, and interpersonal betrayal. She works from a humanistic approach and integrates therapeutic techniques from gestalt and object relations psychotherapies, emotion-focused therapy (EFT), and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).