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Physical vs. Emotional Hunger - To eat or not to eat: that is the question

Posted April 18, 2017 by Michelle Reichert R.D.

Physical vs. Emotional Hunger Determining when to eat should be a simple decision but for many the question "to eat or not to eat?" is a stressful decision. What was once a simple question of responding to a biological cue of physical hunger has transformed into a misguided, mistrusted, and shameful decision, and more often than not we are choosing to eat for the wrong reasons.

Before describing how to eat for the right reasons, it is important to note that it is okay to eat for reasons other than true physical hunger when it is done on occasion. Eating becomes problematic, when we routinely eat based on emotions, boredom, or habit.

So how do we answer the question: to eat or not to eat? First, we must understand the difference between physical vs. emotional hunger.

Physical Hunger Emotional Hunger

  • Stomach pains / growling stomach
  • Emptiness in the stomach
  • Low energy / light headedness
  • Difficulty concentrating / Starting to think about food
  • Time has passed since your last meal / Clock watching
  • If you eat, food is satisfying

  • No physical cues of hunger
  • Quiet stomach
  • Food cravings that cannot be satisfied
  • The action of eating feels like the only option
  • Wandering around kitchen / opening fridge/cupboards searching for food
  • Little time has passed since last meal/snack
  • Food is not totally satisfying

Now that physical and emotional hunger are understood, ask yourself one final question.
Am I hungry?

Am I hungry

Distracting Options Soothing Options

  • Remove yourself from the kitchen
  • Call a friend / family member / Be social
  • Engage in an enjoyable physical activity / Move your body
  • Keep your hands busy
  • Do an engaging activity (play an instrument)
  • Do a mindless activity (colour)
  • Clean / Yard work
  • Read

  • Take a nap / Lay down
  • Relax (take a bath / shower)
  • Meditate / Mindful exercises
  • Call a friend / family member / Be social
  • Unplug from electronics
  • Soothe body / Change into comfy clothing
  • Breathing exercises
  • Identify and Feel emotions

Therefore, to answer the question: to eat of not to eat? We need to ask ourselves the following questions. 1. "Am I hungry?" and 2. "What type of hunger am I feeling (physical vs emotional)?" From there we can choose to eat mindfully, to distract, or to sooth ourselves accordingly.