What Is Emotional Hunger?

Emotional hunger is a common feeling among people who have anxiety or who are going through a stressful situation. Recognizing and treating it is very important, in order to avoid future health complications. 
What Is Emotional Hunger?

Last update: 17 February, 2021

It’s a widespread belief that, when you feel hungry, it’s because your stomach is empty, but this isn’t always the case. Although it’s an unknown term for many, emotional hunger is a very common phenomenon in people who suffer from stress.

Emotional hunger refers to the desire to eat as a result of anxiety instead of physiological needs. In other words, food intake is used as a way to manage negative emotions and alleviate psychological distress.

Eating is a very pleasant activity for everyone. However, if you don’t have control over the amount and type of food you eat, you run the risk of causing health problems; such as being overweight. Therefore, we’ll delve into what emotional hunger is and how to overcome it.

How to differentiate emotional hunger from real hunger

People experience both sensations in a very similar way. However, feeling hungry isn’t the same as being hungry. There are some essential differences that are worth mentioning:

  • Emotional hunger appears suddenly: on the other hand, real hunger appears gradually at certain times, depending on the person’s eating habits.
  • There’s a preference for hypercaloric foods: the body doesn’t demand fruits or vegetables; just junk food, processed foods, or foods with high sugar content. This happens because hypercaloric foods are much more pleasant and activate the reward circuit, which generates a feeling of well-being and happiness.
  • While satisfying our real hunger is pleasurable, emotional hunger produces feelings of guilt, shame, or dissatisfaction. 
Anxiety can cause emotional hunger.

How to overcome emotional hunger

The first step to overcoming emotional hunger is to understand that the main problem isn’t the food per se, but what you do with it. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally eating sugary foods, but doing it to deal with a stressful situation can be problematic.

1. Find other ways to relieve stress

Since emotional hunger is a consequence of stress, eliminating the psychological strain will likely stop the hunger.

To eliminate the stress, it’s preferable to resort to other types of activities that are healthy. Exercising, practicing meditation, or getting in touch with friends are just examples of healthy activities that positively influence mental well-being.

Additionally, these activities work as a distraction. Hence, you won’t be thinking about food while your mind is occupied with any other task.

2. Maintain healthier eating habits

Eating habits largely regulate the behavior of each person. Thus, establishing healthy eating habits is very important.

One of the biggest obstacles we face when trying to establish these habits is snacking between meals. If we don’t condition our stomachs to know that there are certain hours for food intake and others for digestion, it will demand food at all times.

Another aspect that we must take into account is which foods to include more frequently in our diets. Fat is commonly referred to as being an organ and having a life of its own. Therefore, if you frequently eat unhealthy meals, your body is more likely to continue to ask for greasy and sugary foods.

3. Pay attention to bodily sensations

Emotional hunger, unlike real hunger, is experienced throughout the body. Recognizing the physical sensations that it causes is very useful to know that your desire to eat isn’t the result of a real need, but of stress.

It's important to maintain healthy eating habits.

Real hunger manifests as a feeling of emptiness or stomach pain. On the other hand, emotional hunger shares many of the symptoms of stress. These include an increase in heart rate, a feeling of shortness of breath, or hand sweating more heavily.

This exercise in self-awareness is referred to as mindful eating, and it’s proven to be a good method for predicting healthy eating behaviors. 

Eat with your head, not with your heart

Having a healthy relationship with food is one of the most important aspects of health. This means that food has to be a way to feed and nourish us, but now a way to comfort us. 

In the process of controlling emotional hunger, it’s key to recognize that the need for food is being caused by anxiety. The next step is to find another way to relieve stress.

These measures are easier to apply than you might think. In fact, it’s not even necessary to interrupt the activity that you were carrying out. Just take a few deep breaths until you feel calmer.

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  • Jordan, C. H., Wang, W., Donatoni, L., & Meier, B. P. (2014). Mindful eating: Trait and state mindfulness predict healthier eating behavior. Personality and Individual differences, 68, 107-111.