Emotional vs Physical Hunger: How to Tell the Difference

Posted on Jun 23 2014 - 8:54pm by Demelza Young

Confession: I may or may not have just downed the last of my dark chocolate stash.  I miss my little sister, who’s been away nearly the entire month at summer camp.  I’m anxious about seeing my long distance boyfriend again in two weeks.  I’m not 100% how fully prepared I’ll be for a convention I’m attending in just over a month.  Confession: sometimes I use food as more than a means to fill my stomach.  It’s no secret, though, that food can help satisfy our feelings.  Consider a high school student who stress eats during exams, or a broken-hearted individual who tries to drown her loneliness in ice cream.  When your stomach isn’t growling and you try to satiate your feelings with comfort food, that’s what is considered emotional eating.

Everyone comfort eats now and then, and small doses of it aren’t necessarily physically dangerous.  It can be problematic, however, when your stress eating develops into a habit and becomes the primary way that you soothe yourself (especially if the foods you’re choosing aren’t very healthy).  You likely have already noticed that any benefits you experience through emotional eating are short-lived.  Often, you may even look back and feel regret toward the food choices you made when physical hunger was not the one directing your appetite.  But how do you distinguish whether your stomach or your emotions are in control of your hunger?

Emotional Hunger

Emotional hunger can be powerful, which is why it’s easy to mistake it for its physical counterpart.  Fortunately, there are clues that can help you determine which is which.  Here are some questions to ask yourself in order to help identify if what you’re feeling is emotional hunger:

  • Did my hunger hit suddenly?  Emotional hunger is an overwhelming, urgent feeling that hits instantaneously.  For example, maybe you smelled the brownies your sister is baking or maybe you walked into the movie theater and caught the aroma of salted, buttery popcorn.
  • Are you craving specific comfort foods?  Emotional hunger generally causes you to crave junk food or snacks that provide an instant rush.  Suddenly, you need those cookies or that pizza and nothing else will satisfy you.
  • Are you aware of what you’re eating?  When eating emotionally, often you aren’t very aware of how much you’re eating.  You can finish a roll of cookie dough or a family-sized bag of potato chips without realizing or fully enjoying it.  Comfort eating tends to have a mindless component to it, causing you to eat mechanically.
  • Am I satisfied?  You don’t really feel full when eating emotionally.  You can eat past the point of feeling stuffed, yet still feel unsatisfied.
  • Where do I feel my hunger?  Interestingly enough, people identify their physical hunger in different ways.  It may be a gnawing feeling in their stomach, a light-headedness, or something else entirely.  Emotional eating, on the other hand, results in a craving you can’t get out of your head. You tend to focus on specific textures, tastes, and smells.
  • Do I feel regret, guilt, or shame?  Feeling guilty after you eat is likely due to knowing that you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.

Physical Hunger


The same questions can also help identify whether the hunger you’re feeling is physical, as opposed to emotional hunger.  Again, consider the following:

  • Did my hunger hit suddenly?  If the answer is no, you are likely experiencing physical hunger, which occurs more gradually.  Your urge to eat won’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction (unless you haven’t eaten for a very long time).
  • Are you craving specific comfort foods?  Could you eat an apple?  Hamburger soupDonuts?  When you’re physically hungry, anything sounds good… including healthy options.  Yes, you may have preferences, but true hunger leaves you open to alternatives because your only goal is to be fed.
  • Are you aware of what you’re eating?  Are you paying attention to how the food looks/smells/tastes as you eat it instead of wolfing it down?
  • Am I satisfied?  You don’t feel the need to be stuffed; you’re satisfied with just feeling full.  It may be helpful to consider the Bob Greene Hunger/Fullness Awareness Scale when learning to recognize your level of hunger before and just after you eat.  Generally, it is advised to eat when you’re at a “3” and to stop at a “6” or “7.”  Waiting until you are at a lower level before eating can lead to overeating or eating too fast, which in turn could leave you at the other end of the chart (feeling uncomfortably full).
  • Where do I feel my hunger?  Physical hunger is more centered in the stomach.  It may be helpful to consider how long ago it was since you last ate, and whether your body is sending you clear signals that you are hungry.  Are you low in energy?  Maybe you’re experiencing hunger pangs, an emptiness in your belly, or heard your stomach growling. 
  • Do I feel regret, guilt, or shame?  Eating to satisfy physical hunger is unlikely to result in any of these feelings because you are simply giving your body what it needs (“eating to live” versus “living to eat”). 

Remember: while food may seem to help address what’s bothering you, it does its best work feeding your body, not your emotions.


Demelza Young is a recent graduate of Northern Kentucky University. Her current plans are to attend graduate school and to study clinical psychology in the hopes of one day working with eating disordered patients.

40 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Terri S June 23, 2014 at 10:14 pm - Reply

    Great post! I never think about why I’m eating, if I’m really hungry. Thank you for sharing.

  2. melisa June 24, 2014 at 12:54 am - Reply

    That’s true, emotional and physical cravings can be distinguished–you have some great suggestions. Habits are hard to break as well, so are “rituals” and I think we all have jumped in and out of one or the other at one point or another.

  3. Naznin Azeez June 24, 2014 at 8:01 am - Reply

    Very nice post!. I realized I am more of an emotional eater!

  4. Paula Ball June 24, 2014 at 11:01 am - Reply

    I crave sweets like a fiend, can’t control myself Now I know why. Maybe yoga will help, or I could just eat myself into the size of a small car.

  5. Michelle S June 24, 2014 at 11:09 am - Reply

    I find that these questions are really useful! I am working on losing weight and getting healthier. I find that emotional eating or simply eating because I’m bored happens at night. These questions may help me analyze and make better choices.

  6. Leo June 25, 2014 at 7:29 pm - Reply

    The questions were most helpful – have not seen their like before. Thanks for another thought provoking article! Are you doing another recipe soon–for when emotional and physical cravings coincide, perhaps?

    • Demelza June 27, 2014 at 12:55 am - Reply

      Yes, I’m hoping to have another recipe up soon so stay tuned. :]

  7. Emily June 25, 2014 at 9:17 pm - Reply

    Great guidelines. It’s so true that when you’re truly hungry, anything sounds good!

  8. Autumn Jojola June 26, 2014 at 2:17 am - Reply

    Really great post, I struggle with this daily.

  9. Shannon June 26, 2014 at 3:25 pm - Reply

    Thank you for sharing this post with us. This is something a lot of us struggle with.

  10. Tiana B June 26, 2014 at 7:08 pm - Reply

    I know so many people who are emotional eaters! It can be hard to tell the difference for a lot of people 🙁

  11. Cheryl Rogers June 26, 2014 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    I know how both of these types of hunger feel! I appreciate the insight you have given, the hunger scale developed by Bob Greene is useful for sure! I think that I definitely feel guilt after eating sometime, so now I know where I stand!

  12. sherry butcher June 27, 2014 at 3:46 am - Reply

    your right on target. tonight I ate because it was 9 hours since I last ate and I’m diabetic so 5 hours is the most I should go. I hate eating when I’m not physically Hungary, but when I get up I should eat with in an hour. Today was a bad day so I must uses something like what you listed to be sure I eat when and what I need. TDS.

  13. Cindy Merrill June 27, 2014 at 5:30 am - Reply

    I have a great way of finding out whether I am really hungry or not; I drink a glass of water. Often, hunger pangs are mistaken sometimes for thirst. After 10 minutes, if I still feel hungry, then I grab a snack, preferably something nutritious.

  14. Dolores Adair June 27, 2014 at 6:30 am - Reply

    This is so true. I struggled with “comfort food eating” for years and once I finally got the hang of figuring out when I was actually hungry and when I was just “emotional eating” it was life changing!

  15. Debra Womack June 27, 2014 at 7:20 am - Reply

    I know I do the emotional eating thing. I have most of my life. The only thing that has just about stopped it is being forced to account for everything I eat. I’ve had diabetes for YEARS and have started using an insulin pump. When I eat, I have to calculate the carbs and put it in the pump – then get my dose of insulin to cover it.

    It’s a real eye opener to have to account for every morsel!

  16. Michaela June 27, 2014 at 9:08 am - Reply

    I have experienced ’emotional hunger’ many times. Especially when I’m in a tough predicament, having a bad day, etc. Physical hunger I feel everyday, though! 🙂 But the important thing is not to just eat because you feel happy, sad, angry, etc. But eat when you physically need to. (At least most of the time. Sometimes, you just need to eat because of something emotional, too.) 🙂

  17. Georgette June 27, 2014 at 10:59 am - Reply

    I wish more bloggers posted these sorts of things; it could be the difference between a pound or ten. I am definitely an emotional eater; if stressed, no food or little food, not enough to sustain me. Physical hunger does hit once in a while, when I am at work and don’t realize how hungry I am until the headache and bitchiness starts.

  18. Diana Corlett June 27, 2014 at 1:12 pm - Reply

    This article makes a valid point and one which I have not considered in my own life. There is a comfort in eating that does not always signify bodily hunger pangs, but rather psychological cravings wanting to be appeased.

  19. Candace B June 27, 2014 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    Excuse the length of this particular comment on your post, but I find this to be a very important topic to discuss and this is not only limited to those who eat emotional but also those who avoid eating emotionally. I watched a friend, one who I have known for many years, eat emotionally for many years. This actually caused quite the reaction for me, which was to avoid eating emotionally. When thinking about the psychology behind emotional eating, or the lack of emotional eating, one can see where this can be very problematic because it shows how the environment one lives in and what one sees can cause the opposite end of this spectrum to occur. Seeing another individual emotionally eating caused me to avoid eating when I was emotional, which turned into an issue in and of itself. While my friend was gaining weight from emotional eating, I was losing weight from not eating emotionally and suddenly gaining weight when I was not emotional because I was suddenly eating. My body would absorb food from when I would eat because I was having a good day and suddenly I would gain a few pounds. This may seem difficult to believe, but it did occur and can occur to anyone who decides to not eat meals and suddenly eat a meal. Both ends of this spectrum can be dangerous to one’s health and can be indicative of many different mental health issues and cause medical issues.

    It is important to understand the difference between physical and emotional hunger for both ends of this spectrum. Someone could easily avoid food from being emotional and not realize they are truly hungry and need to eat, thinking it is purely emotional.

    This scale can help those who are both emotional eaters and avoid food when emotional. Also, it is important to understand how even though emotional eating can be harmful, one should be prepared for those times when it does occur and have foods that are healthy around to help combat the emotional hunger. While working on my undergraduate degree, I was required to take a course on nutrition, something I recommend to all undergraduate students, and we discussed emotional eating. One of the tips given to us was to have a healthy snack, in a small bag, near a desk or in the fridge for those moments. This way the guilt wasn’t so bad from eating emotionally and there was a way to divert from eating junk food. By having foods prepared in a small bag, this also helps with portion control so the emotional eating does not become out of hand. This is an important topic to address and I thank you for taking the time to discuss such an important topic.

  20. Audrey G June 27, 2014 at 5:37 pm - Reply

    I needed this article. It speaks to me on so many levels.

  21. Erica Sims June 28, 2014 at 1:26 am - Reply

    Great post, I think we all need to evaluate our eating habits more. The questions you provide are a great way to think about what is the root of our eating at that time. It will help me curb my own eating habits.

  22. Marissa June 28, 2014 at 9:50 am - Reply

    I’m such an emotional eater! I’m getting better and learning they ” signs” of emotional eating has really helped. When I can’t seem to “talk” myself out of eating for non-hunger reason I drink a BIG glass of water and change my physical location! Get outside, do to my room, or just take a walk. Good stuff right here!

  23. Cindy McElwee June 28, 2014 at 8:30 pm - Reply

    Great review, never thought of this that way. Makes perfect sense. Now I understand, I will be learning ♥

  24. nikki robak June 28, 2014 at 11:47 pm - Reply

    I am an emotional eater. I struggle with all types of sugary snacks.

  25. kath g June 29, 2014 at 3:07 am - Reply

    i like this information. i can see where i fit into both. i think i’m a boredom snacker lots of times and sometimes i can’t tell if i’m really hungry or not, so those are good questions to ask myself. i’m saving this page. thanks.

  26. Brigid OHara Koshko June 29, 2014 at 12:47 pm - Reply

    I must confess I can be an emotional eater. I have times when I am just craving something to eat hours after eating a full email. Thank you for shedding some light on this.

  27. christina July 1, 2014 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    I find that I ALWAYS eat at the wrong time and never the right time… I am an emotional eater, so when I get really upset I either DON’T eat t all and will o a few days like that or eat constantly and binge for a few days on junk food… it’s very sad how food can easily ruin one’s life and health just as bad as drugs can… 🙁

  28. krystel July 1, 2014 at 5:04 pm - Reply

    this is very informative sometimes i am a emotional eater when im like depressed or stressed i just ten to eat alot its crazy

  29. Anita L July 2, 2014 at 7:05 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this informative post. I’ve often wondered if I’m eating because I’m hungry or maybe just depressed. Menopause does not help in trying to lose weight.

  30. Zonell Conant July 2, 2014 at 2:39 pm - Reply

    This is a really great article. I never think about why I’m hungry. I pick up some really good information.

  31. Brittany Williams July 3, 2014 at 3:00 am - Reply

    This is such an amazing article! So glad I found this, will definitely keep this in mind 🙂

  32. sherry butcher July 3, 2014 at 8:31 am - Reply

    I find these questions are really useful. tip; have a healthy snack, in a small bag in the fridge for those emotion eating times. this is a way to divert from eating junk food. By having foods in a small bag it helps with portion control. TFS.

  33. Trista Anderson July 3, 2014 at 10:33 am - Reply

    I have always been one who eats when I am upset. I do not usually just get hungry I can go almost all day without eating and not feel hungry, but as soon as I get upset or depressed all I want to do is eat.

  34. Vanessa E July 3, 2014 at 1:06 pm - Reply

    Very informative. I am a emotional eater and always have been. I struggle with not grabbing a snack after something bad or good happens. I am more aware of it now and try and stay as busy as possible!

  35. M.Clark July 4, 2014 at 9:42 pm - Reply

    This is a great post, I am not an emotional eater. Thank you for sharing this very interesting and informative post.

  36. Renée Cornelius July 6, 2014 at 2:48 pm - Reply

    Regret always follows my bouts of emotional eating. Thank you for the questions to ask ourselves and make us more accountable for why we are eating.

  37. Linda Manns Linneman July 9, 2014 at 12:18 pm - Reply

    I am an emotional eater and I constantly pick on bad food to comfort. Since I am a Christian I have decided to keep my focus on God and away from my problems. Thank you for sharing this

  38. Kate July 9, 2014 at 10:17 pm - Reply

    I often find myself binge eating, but I also go long periods of time without eating and then need to get my energy up quickly, so it’s especially hard for me to see the difference. Thanks for your post!

  39. Petra Jadan August 12, 2014 at 10:43 am - Reply

    Great article. I think most of the time we keep eating even though we have had enough. Just having the food in the plate makes us hungry.

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