What Does Hunger Feel Like? How to Distinguish Physical Hunger, Emotional Hunger, and Boredom

What Does Hunger Feel Like? How to Distinguish Physical Hunger, Emotional Hunger, and Boredom

Hunger is more complex than it might seem. For many people, identifying the genuine sensation of hunger can be confusing, especially if you struggle with overeating. What does hunger feel like when you’ve spent so long only feeling full?

As an eating psychology coach that advocates for giving up dieting and, instead, listening to your body to inform what you eat, the #1 question I get in regards to giving up dieting is: “But how can I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full if I don’t even know what hunger feels like anymore?”

I often like to envision hunger and fullness as opposite ends of a metronome, constantly swinging back and forth with a ceaseless rhythm throughout the day. However, for those of us that struggle with compulsive eating, the metronome might feel stuck to one side: fullness.

I have coached and conversed and messaged with many individuals who grapple with the question, what does hunger feel like? While I explore the topic in-depth in my online course about eating psychology, Food Normal, this article will provide plenty of helpful insights into navigating the nuances of hunger.

Physical Sensations of Hunger

Physical signs of hunger can vary widely among individuals. It may manifest as a gnawing or empty sensation in your stomach, or even as a growling or rumbling noise. You might also experience physical weakness or light-headedness when your body is in need of fuel. Identifying the physical signs of hunger and responding to them promptly is vital to maintaining good health.

Physical signs that you are hungry may include:

  • Empty Feeling in the Stomach: This can sometimes feel like a gnawing sensation. It’s often the first sign of true physical hunger.
  • Hunger Pangs: These are intermittent spasms that can occur in the stomach due to the absence of food.
  • Growling or Rumbling in the Stomach: This is caused by the movement of gas in the intestines and stomach, often due to the body preparing for a meal.
  • Feeling Weak or Low Energy: Without sufficient food intake, the body may lack the energy it needs to perform everyday tasks, leading to feelings of weakness or fatigue.
  • Difficulty Concentrating: The brain needs glucose to function properly. Without adequate food intake, cognitive abilities like concentration can be affected.
  • Mood Changes: You might experience irritability or mood swings when you’re hungry, often referred to as being “hangry” (a combination of hungry and angry).
  • Dizziness or Light-headedness: In extreme cases of hunger, some people may feel dizzy or light-headed due to low blood sugar levels.
  • Headaches: Some people may experience headaches when they are hungry, also likely related to dropping blood sugar levels.
  • Nausea: Some people might feel nauseated if they haven’t eaten in a while, although this varies from person to person.

When we get physically hungry, we may know exactly what we want to eat, or we might be hungry and yet nothing sounds good. I like to call the former ‘Aimless Hunger,’ and it’s important to eat otherwise you run the risk of undereating now and overeating later.

Mental Signs of Hunger

Sometimes, when we become detached from our hunger signals (for reasons discussed later in this article), we may need to rely on mental signs of hunger to help us in the meantime. Even when we cannot physically feel hunger, there are other mental symptoms of hunger that we can look for.

Psychological signs that you’re hungry may include:

  • Cravings for Specific Foods: Psychological hunger is often associated with cravings for specific types of food, especially those high in sugar or fat.
  • Eating Beyond Fullness: Despite feeling physically full, you may still have a desire to continue eating.
  • Eating Due to Emotions: If you’re feeling bored, stressed, sad, or even happy, you might turn to food for comfort or to celebrate.
  • Eating Due to External Cues: Seeing or smelling food, seeing a food advertisement, or passing by a favorite restaurant might trigger a desire to eat, even if you’re not physically hungry.
  • Eating in Social Situations: Sometimes, the act of socializing, even virtually, can make you want to eat more, even if you’re not physically hungry.
  • Thinking About Food: You may find yourself thinking about food a lot, especially if you’re restricting your food intake or dieting.
  • Uncontrolled Eating: This could be consuming large quantities of food in response to emotional states or situations rather than a physical need for food.
  • Eating Out of Habit: You may find yourself reaching for a snack during certain activities, like watching TV, regardless of whether you’re truly hungry.

To that last point, I actually have an entire YouTube video about eating while distracted:

Spoiler alert: I don’t actually think it’s necessary to always eat with no distraction in order to heal your relationship with food. While it certainly helps us notice our hunger and fullness, I actually think there are better ways to use your willpower, which I discuss in the video. (Don’t like watching videos? Don’t worry, those tips are also covered later in this article, too.)

Emotional Signs of Hunger

Emotional hunger usually comes on suddenly and feels urgent. It’s driven by specific cravings, often for “forbidden foods” (for those of us well-acquainted with dieting) or foods high in sugar and fat. Even when you’re full, you may still feel unsatisfied after eating when the hunger is emotional. 

Emotional signs that you are hungry may include:

  • Urgency: Emotional hunger can manifest suddenly, creating an intense and urgent need to eat. This is often contrasted with physical hunger, which typically grows over time.
  • Specific Cravings: Emotional hunger is usually associated with a craving for specific foods, often comfort foods that are high in sugar, fat, or both.
  • Eating to Suppress Emotions: Emotional hunger can cause individuals to eat in order to suppress negative emotions like sadness, loneliness, boredom, stress, or anxiety.
  • Feeling Unsatisfied Despite Being Full: After an episode of emotional eating, one may continue to feel unsatisfied even though they are physically full.
  • Feeling Guilt or Shame After Eating: Unlike physical hunger, which is satisfied by eating, emotional hunger can lead to feelings of guilt or shame post-eating, especially if the person views their eating behavior as a lack of self-control.
  • Triggered by Emotional Events: Emotional hunger can be triggered by both negative and positive emotional events, including stress, personal conflict, celebrations, or even boredom.

Unlike physical hunger, which needs to be answered with food in order to fuel the body, emotional hunger is not quenched by food. Emotional hunger requires tools that address our emotional needs, and we will discuss ways of coping without food later in this article.

Now that you understand the signs of hunger, let’s dig into the science of hunger and then back everything up with some eating psychology – my favorite part! Because there’s more to distinguishing physical hunger from emotional hunger, and we will explore it in-depth soon.

Hunger vs. Cravings: Knowing the Difference

Another area that can cause confusion around hunger is cravings. Cravings are intense desires for specific foods. Unlike hunger, they are not tied to the body’s energy needs. Cravings often have emotional roots and can be triggered by various factors, including stress, boredom, social situations, or resistance to feeling uncomfortable.

Cravings and hunger are different. While hunger is a bodily need that builds gradually, cravings are usually sudden urges for specific foods. You can be full and still experience cravings, whereas true hunger is alleviated by eating.

Cravings for certain types of foods, particularly carbohydrates and sweets, can be influenced by prior dietary restrictions or specific eating plans, such as the ketogenic diet. When certain food groups are restricted or limited for an extended period, it’s natural for the body to develop a heightened desire or craving for those foods.

This phenomenon can be attributed, in part, to the psychological and physiological response to food deprivation. The restriction of carbohydrates, for example, can lead to a depletion of glycogen stores in the body, which triggers the release of hormones that promote the craving for carbohydrates.

It’s important to note that experiencing cravings for carbs and sweets, especially after restricting them, is a normal response and does not necessarily indicate true hunger. While it’s important to listen to your body’s signals and honor your cravings, it’s equally essential to be mindful of your overall nutritional needs and try to maintain a balanced diet.

Understanding Physical and Emotional Hunger

With all that said, let’s discuss the nuances of physical vs emotional hunger so that you can get reacquainted with your hunger signals before (or after, it’s all up to you!) you give up dieting.

Physical Hunger: Your Body’s Call for Energy

Physical, or biological, hunger arises from your brain communicating your body’s need for energy. These signals can show up in a variety of physical and emotional responses that essentially implore you to stop what you’re doing and eat. 

While there are numerous tricks floating around that supposedly suppress physical hunger, they merely act as distractions or provide temporary relief. Physical hunger will persist until it is addressed, often resurfacing with even greater intensity if ignored.

The most commonly recognized sign of physical hunger is an empty feeling or growling in the stomach. As hunger intensifies, this may progress to a gnawing, painful, or nauseous sensation. Other physical signs might include tightness in the chest or throat. Emotionally, physical hunger can be felt through feelings of fatigue, difficulty concentrating, or mood changes like anxiety or irritability, often referred to as “hanger.”

Emotional Hunger: An Emotional Desire for Food

Emotional hunger, on the other hand, is driven by emotions rather than the physical need for food. While it’s often associated with negative feelings such as stress, anger, or sadness, it’s important to remember that emotional hunger can also stem from positive feelings like happiness, excitement, or boredom.

Let’s say you’re having a stressful day at work. You’re halfway through a tough project but you know you won’t finish by the deadline, and then you find yourself mindlessly reaching for a chocolate bar. Here, your desire for food isn’t driven by a physical need, but by a desire to relieve stress.

A major challenge in listening to your body to inform what and when you eat is knowing the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. However, there are some key differences to consider:

  • Physical hunger generally develops gradually and can be alleviated by any type of food. The hunger signals are typically tied to a desire for satiety and satisfaction, and are likely to resurface 2-3 hours after a fulfilling meal.
  • Emotional hunger can emerge suddenly and intensely, often in response to strong emotions. The cravings tend to be for specific types of food and are usually tied to a need for comfort, relaxation, or numbness. Importantly, emotional hunger can strike regardless of when you last ate.

How to Discern Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger with the ‘Stop, Drop, & Feel’

The overlap between emotional and physical hunger can make distinguishing the two a challenging task. Sometimes, you might experience physical hunger simultaneously with emotional hunger.

For example, consider the end of a long and taxing day. You’ve been busy, barely having time for a proper meal. By the time you get home, you’re feeling both physically drained and emotionally spent. You might crave something comforting like a big bowl of pasta. Here, both emotional and physical hunger are at play.

If you’re unsure whether you’re experiencing physical or emotional hunger, this is the perfect moment to use my Stop, Drop, & Feel method to stop binge eating. Although the tool is designed to stop a binge in its tracks, it can also be helpful for discerning physical vs emotional hunger.

how to stop a binge in its tracks with the Stop, Drop, & Feel®️

To do the Stop, Drop, & Feel, simply stop what you are doing, drop into your body, and ask yourself how you’re feeling. Try not to intellectualize it and instead, really drop in and surrender to the moment.

Chances are, if your hunger is emotional, an uncomfortable emotion will bubble to the surface, like loneliness or anxiety. But if you do the Stop, Drop, & Feel and nothing noticeable comes up, you are likely dealing with physical hunger.

The effectiveness of this tool is driven by my belief that, behind every desire to eat when you aren’t hungry is a feeling that you don’t want to feel. And when that feeling finally gets the attention it needs, the desire to overeat fades away.

In all cases, remember that it’s completely okay to eat outside of physical hunger cues. This is all part of building a healthier, more intuitive relationship with food. 

In fact, every Stop, Drop, & Feel starts with a promise that you can still eat exactly what you’re craving when the SDF is over. Without that promise, the SDF can actually turn into another form of restriction and perpetuate the restrict-binge cycle. Permission to Eat is key!

Boredom vs. Hunger: Understanding the Difference

Many people find themselves reaching for food not because of physical hunger, but because they’re bored. This is called boredom eating, a type of emotional eating that can lead to mindless eating and unwanted weight gain. How can we differentiate between boredom and actual hunger?

To determine whether you’re genuinely hungry, consider doing a mental check-in and examining your emotional state. This is where your ‘Stop, Drop, & Feel’ method can come in handy, once again. When you feel the urge to eat out of boredom, do a classic Stop, Drop, & Feel and see what comes up.

I personally believe that there is always another emotion underneath boredom. Much like anger is a secondary emotion (where this is usually something else underneath) boredom too is also an “iceberg” emotion. The Stop, Drop, & Feel helps you identify the primary feeling rumbling beneath the surface. Then, your only job is to feel that feeling.

I will admit, I know that the Stop, Drop, & Feel can sometimes sound like an idea that’s too soft and easy to produce tangible results. Sometimes, when a problem feels really big (like the lifelong struggle with overeating), we think the solution needs to be equally big and difficult. But just give the Stop, Drop, & Feel a try. It changed my life and has remained the lynchpin of my method to stop compulsive eating.

What Does Hunger Feel Like? The Role of Hormones and the Hypothalamus

As you begin exploring what hunger feels like, physically and emotionally, it helps to know more about how hunger works at a biological level within your body. Although eating psychology plays a powerful and arguably more important role in discerning hunger, it helps to understand what’s going on inside our bodies, too.

The feeling of hunger is regulated by hormones, with the most critical hormones being ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin, which is primarily produced in the stomach, is known as the “hunger hormone.” When your stomach is empty, ghrelin levels increase, and it travels to the hypothalamus, a part of your brain that regulates appetite. 

Once ghrelin reaches the hypothalamus, it signals the brain that it’s time to eat, stimulating feelings of hunger. Leptin, produced by your fat cells, lets your brain know when you’ve eaten enough and should feel full. (Although many of us admonish our body fat, it has its benefits!)

The hypothalamus acts as the control center for hunger and helps balance your eating behavior. It receives these hormonal signals and coordinates the appropriate responses (i.e. feelings of hunger) to keep your energy levels in check and regulate your appetite.

However, excessive dieting and restriction can impact the “hypothalamic regulation of hunger signals.”

In other words, when someone consistently follows a highly restrictive diet, the hypothalamus may adapt and learn to ignore hunger cues.

This adaptation occurs as a result of the body’s perceived need for conservation during times of limited food availability. Over time, excessive dieting can effectively train the hypothalamus to suppress hunger signals, making it difficult for individuals to recognize and respond to their body’s true hunger.

As a consequence, people that have been dieting long-term (even if they binge or overeat routinely – especially if so) can become out of touch with what hunger truly feels like. I personally know what it feels like to yearn for the feeling of hunger while also doing the complete opposite, like compulsively “eating by the clock.” It wasn’t until I stopped dieting and turned my attention towards eating psychology that I was finally able to make progress.

Healing Your Hunger Without Dieting

In order to recover your ability to know what hunger feels like, it’s important to stop dieting so that you can retrain your brain to listen to your body to inform when you’re hungry. However, it can be scary to think about giving up dieting, which is akin to giving up control for many of us.

I am a big advocate of giving up dieting and listening to your body to inform what you eat instead. I believe that your body already has all the wisdom it needs to maintain a healthy weight – we just need to get back in sync with it.

It often helps to get reacquainted with hunger and fullness before you add the vulnerable step of giving up dieting.

While this goes against what many intuitive eating coaches believe (they all seem to vehemently advocate giving up dieting and letting go of any and all desire to lose weight) I am distinctly different from the intuitive eating book.

My personal philosophy, called Psycho-Spiritual Wellness, helps you use your relationship with food as a doorway into every other area of your life. Because as Geneen Roth once said, “How we do anything is how we do everything. We eat the way we live.” 

In other words, if you feel out of control when you give up dieting, you may also feel out of control somewhere else in your life, and that’s why you find safety or comfort in dieting (even though diets don’t work). Instead of zooming past the process of giving up dieting, I am an advocate for slowing down and doing it when you’re ready. Look at why it’s difficult to stop dieting with curiosity and compassion.

How to Heal Your Hunger and Know What It Feels Like Again

To cultivate a healthier relationship with food, it’s pivotal that you focus on healing your relationship with hunger, getting back in touch with how it genuinely feels. This journey involves crafting an approach to nourishment that respects your body’s natural rhythms and needs.

Here are some tips you can use to heal your hunger, get back in sync with your body’s natural rhythms, and find peace with food without dieting.

1. Redefine What a Nourishing Diet Means to You

bright cantaloupe cut in half for a nourishing snack when hungry

As you begin to heal your relationship with hunger, one of the critical steps is to redefine what a nourishing diet means for you. This isn’t solely about eating foods that are traditionally deemed as healthy – fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. While these foods are undeniably rich in essential nutrients and support satiety, a truly nourishing diet goes beyond just these elements.

The path to giving up dieting and eating in sync with your body means sometimes including fear foods or previously forbidden foods in your diet as well. These foods, often emotionally laden due to past negative associations or guilt, can play a significant role in healing your perception of hunger. The act of intentionally incorporating these foods back into your meals can help dissipate the fear and stigma associated with them.

2. Find a Rhythm with Regular Meals and Snacks

assortment of snacks for physical vs emotional hunger

In the process of healing your hunger, establishing a rhythm with regular meals and snacks becomes essential. This rhythm allows your body to expect nourishment at regular intervals, which can aid in restoring a more natural hunger cycle.

Eating regularly is not merely about maintaining steady blood sugar and energy levels, though these are important aspects. More fundamentally, it’s about honoring your body’s innate need for consistent fuel and nurturing trust in your body’s hunger signals.

When you ensure a consistent supply of nutrients for your body, you teach your body and brain that food will always be available when needed. This can help prevent the panic-driven hunger that arises when the body fears it may not be nourished adequately and soon enough. It also reduces the likelihood of experiencing extreme hunger peaks and valleys that can lead to intense cravings or overeating.

3. Pay Attention to Proper Hydration

Hydration is a key factor in hunger management. It’s common for thirst to be mistaken for hunger, so it’s essential to prioritize drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day. Adequate hydration helps differentiate between true hunger and thirst, preventing unnecessary eating. By staying hydrated, you support your body in maintaining its natural equilibrium.

4. Notice How Quality Sleep Helps with Hunger Management

woman taking a nap in the middle of the day instead of eating without hunger

Sleep plays a significant role in hunger regulation. Insufficient sleep can disrupt the balance of hunger hormones, leading to increased feelings of hunger and a higher risk of overeating. Prioritizing quality sleep enables the body to maintain optimal hormonal balance, promoting healthier appetite control and preventing unnecessary weight gain.

By incorporating these strategies into your lifestyle, you embark on a journey of healing your hunger and reconnecting with your body’s signals. Embrace the power of a nourishing diet, regular meals and snacks, proper hydration, and quality sleep. By doing so, you empower yourself to cultivate a profound understanding of your body’s needs and strengthen your ability to differentiate physical hunger from emotional hunger.

You Tell Me: What Does Hunger Feel Like?

In conclusion, understanding and managing hunger are crucial steps in developing a healthy relationship with food. By recognizing hunger’s signs, distinguishing between physical and emotional hunger, and addressing cravings, you can embark on a journey of self-awareness and nourishment.

The Stop, Drop, & Feel method is a powerful tool to navigate hunger’s complexities. By pausing, dropping into your body, and tuning into the emotions and sensations underlying your hunger, you can differentiate between physical and emotional hunger, as well as identify boredom and other triggers that impact your eating habits.

I am very curious to hear your thoughts about hunger. After all, I wrote this post because confusion with hunger is arguably one of the biggest things holding people back from giving up dieting. Where do you get hung up with hunger? What helped or didn’t help? Leave me a comment below. I read and reply to every single one.

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