Healthy & Happy  

Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Appetite Hunger

Written by: Dr. Kim Feinstein, Clinical Psychologist & Behavioral Weight Loss Specialist

Did you know that 95-98% of diets fail due to emotional eating rather than physical appetite hunger? Emotional eating erodes self-esteem by perpetuating feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy. If you are like most who have been fighting this fight and are tired of the struggle, just remember you CAN take control!

Take a moment now and think about your own experience with food:

  • Do you use food as a source of comfort or relief when you feel sad, anxious, angry, bored, or lonely?
  • Do you attempt to numb your feelings with food?
  • Do you eat as a way to get through a difficult time (financial problems, relationship struggles, job loss, illness, etc.)?
  • Do you celebrate with food?
  • Do you reward yourself with food?
  • Is eating your main source of pleasure in life?

Think about the last time you ate inappropriately and ask yourself these important questions. To help, we’ve outlined an emotional eating test below:

Emotional Eating Quiz

  1. Did your hunger or urge to eat come on fast, or did it grow gradually?
  2. When you felt like eating, did you feel an almost desperate need to eat right away?
  3. While eating were you paying attention to what or how much you were eating, or did you just stuff it in? Was your eating fast and/or frenzied?
  4. Did you crave something specific? (You are more likely to choose “trigger foods” to satisfy an emotional need).
  5. Did you feel guilty or remorseful after eating? Did it make you want to keep eating because you “blew it anyway?”

Now let’s review your answers!

  1. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, while physical hunger develops more gradually. Physical hunger begins with physical appetite symptoms (i.e., hunger pangs, headache, etc.), which is very different from emotional hunger. Emotional hunger typically has a sudden and dramatic onset.
  2. Emotional hunger demands food immediately, and it wants immediate gratification, whereas physical hunger will wait for food.
  3. A significant difference between emotional hunger and physical appetite hunger is mindfulness. Mindfulness is all about paying attention and being aware. When you are eating in response to physical hunger, you are more inclined to maintain awareness of what and how much you put in your mouth. Conversely, when you satisfy emotional hunger, you are rarely mindful of what’s being eaten, and you eat in a fast and frenzied manner.
  4. Emotional hunger often demands fatty foods or sugary snacks that provide instant relief. You feel like you need chocolate, ice cream, or pizza, and nothing else will suffice. Even healthier foods appear delicious if you’re eating in response to physical hunger.
  5. Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame. Eating to satisfy physical hunger makes you unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you’re simply giving your body what it needs. If you feel guilty after you eat, it’s likely because you know deep down that you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.

Coping With Emotional Eating Triggers

In times of high stress and hardship, it can be easy to turn to food for comfort. However, this can easily spiral out of control. As such, here are a few tips on how to avoid going down a negative path:

As the intensity of a craving builds, it feels like it will last forever. However, research indicates that a craving lasts about 25-30 minutes before subsiding. So, before you give in to your craving, I encourage you to delay as long as possible. If 25-30 minutes seems like eternity, start with 5-minute intervals and work up to 30 minutes. It gets easier the more you practice this!

While you are delaying, it is important to distract yourself with something pleasurable other than food! Try to do something that evokes an opposite emotion from the one triggering you. Some examples include reading a book or magazine, playing an enjoyable game on your computer, tablet, or phone, or calling a friend.

While you are “delaying” and “distracting,” it is best to distance yourself from any food source. This will help minimize the likelihood of giving into the craving.

If the craving is still intense and the previous 3 D’s are not helping, I encourage you to determine, “How will eating make me feel in the LONG TERM?” We know it will give you relief for only 20 minutes before needing another “dose.” So ask yourself, “Is emotional eating in line with my goals?” “Why are weight loss and weight management so important to me?” See if you can self-talk your way to success.

If all of the above Ds are still not helping and you must indulge in your craving, decide the following:

  1. How much am I going to eat? Will I eat the entire bag of chips, or will I just have a few?
  2. Where am I going to eat? Am I going to eat it in my pantry, car, standing up, etc.? Or, am I going to eat at a table and enjoy the experience?
  3. How fast am I going to eat? Will I stuff the food in my mouth rapidly, or will I chew slowly and savor each bite?
  4. With what hand will I eat? I encourage you to eat with your non-dominant hand (i.e., if you are right-handed, eat with your left hand and visa versa). This will slow you down and prompt you to respond to your craving rather than react to it with old habits.

Eating to satisfy physical hunger makes you unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you’re simply giving your body what it needs. Download our Emotional Hunger worksheet the next time hunger strikes.

Author Image

Dr. Kim Feinstein is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and our Behavioral Weight Loss Specialist. She earned her Masters of Counseling degree from the University of Phoenix and earned her Masters and Doctoral degrees in Clinical Psychology from the Arizona School of Professional Psychology/Argosy University-Phoenix campus.