Understanding your Hunger

Toni Goldswain
Nutrition Expert
February 5, 2024
5 Minutes

Aaaah! Hunger! So you’ve just had 5 biscuits… did you eat them for your stomach or did you eat them for your heart?

Understanding the difference between emotional and physical hunger can be quite difficult, as there is sometimes an overlap, but one of the goals of intuitive eating is to be able to recognize hunger and satiety cues and eat in a way that mostly aligns with them. 

Physical Hunger:

Physical hunger is biological. Your brain is communicating a need for energy, gearing you to stop what you’re doing and eat. The only way to address physical hunger is to eat. You might recognize physical hunger through an emptiness in your stomach, growling or rumbling sounds, fatigue, anxiety, feeling “hangry” and even pain or nausea when hunger is severe. 

These sensations come on slowly and we don’t crave anything specific (even a bowl of veggies sounds good when we’re hungry). We just know it’s about time to head into the kitchen and prepare something to eat. This hunger usually arrives 2-3 hours after our last meal. 

Before you eat, interview yourself first. “What do I want and why do I want it”? You might realise that your energy has dipped and you need a top up. Eat real food!!!! Don’t let a dip in energy be an excuse to eat unhealthy foods.When was your last meal? How was your sleep the previous night?

To make sure you’re really satisfied after a meal, always include protein, carbs and fat, and as much non-starchy veg as you can to bulk up the volume of your meal. Eat slowly, be present, and check in with where you’re at on the hunger scale along the way.

Emotional Hunger:

Emotional hunger usually comes from the more negative emotions like stress, sadness or anger and then we have a desire to soothe these feelings. However, emotional hunger can also come from excitement, happiness and boredom. Emotional hunger comes on rapidly, we usually crave specific foods and feel like we need cheesecake or pizza, and it happens independently to our last meal. Unfortunately, food doesn’t fix our emotional problems, and if you are an emotional eater, it’s because you haven’t yet developed other ways to self-soothe. The problem with this is that you can enter an emotional eating cycle: you’re upset about something, you feel an overwhelming urge to eat, you eat more than you know you should, you feel guilty about what you’ve done, you’re upset by then…. And the cycle continues.

If you’re not sure which one you’re experiencing, put together a healthy, balanced, satisfying meal or snack, and check in with yourself again after 15 minutes of eating it. If you’re feeling good, you just needed refuelling, but if you’re still itching to eat, you might need to do a bit of digging into your feelings.

The first step to overcoming emotional eating is to identify your triggers. What places, situations or people make you want to reach for comfort food?

For example:
Do you crave junk food when you have an important work deadline?

Do you use food to numb feelings that are difficult to sit with?

Do you use food to relieve boredom or facilitate procrastination?

Did your parents reward good behaviour with food when you were a child?

Do you overeat because you feel awkward in social settings?

Every time you over eat or notice a craving, try to apply the brakes and think before you act.
What was the upsetting event?
What was your mood?

What emotion would describe how you’re feeling?

What do you want to eat?
Why do you want to eat it?
When was your last meal?

There are a few tests you can do to test which hunger you’re experiencing.

Satisfaction vs Relief

place your hand on the part of your body that’s shouting the loudest. Is it your stomach or your head/heart?

Fix: If it’s your head, give your brain some mentally stimulating material. If your hand went to your shoulders, try a few minutes of stretching. If it went to your stomach, mindfully choose something nourishing to eat.

Emotional vs Physical

Test: On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is so hungry you could eat your iPhone and 10 is so full you have to unbutton your jeans, where do you sit? If you’re a 1 - 5, you should eat something. If you’re a 6 - 10, food isn’t your answer.

Fix: Eat a naartjie. Because you have to peel away the skin and then segment each piece one by one, they’re a great de-stresser.

Nutritious vs Palatable

Test: A truly hungry person will eat a range of food, whereas an emotionally hungry person will crave a specific taste. Ask yourself if your stomach is hungry or if your mouth is hungry. Do you just want to eat something because it tastes sweet and creamy?

Fix: Plan your snacks, and don’t try to make them too healthy. Sometimes tomatoes and cottage cheese just aren’t going to cut it. Make some healthy date balls or banana muffins. Hummus is cool, but try sprinkling some paprika or z’aatar spice over it first. Make nutrition food more palatable. It doesn’t have to be bland.

Often the foods we crave during emotional hunger are the sweets, junk food and comfort foods - usually the unhealthy stuff that isn’t very satisfying. What you can try to do is combine a small quantity of these foods (a handful of chips) with something more satisfying (corn chips with cottage cheese and veggie sticks). This way you aren’t depriving yourself completely.

Remember, food is there to nourish our bodies, so if you’re relying on food for anything else, you’re expecting it to do too much. The hug you give is not going to be returned. Try out other ways of feeding your emotions.

For example:
If you’re lonely, pick up the phone and call someone you care about, or invite a friend over for coffee. Play with your pet or look through some photos of special memories.

If you’re anxious, put on your favourite song, take some deep breaths, or go for a walk.

If you’re tired, have a cup of tea, a hot bath or a nap.

If you’re bored, read a book, watch a few minutes of TV, spend time doing a hobby, paint your nails, take a brain break from work, sit somewhere else in your house or office for a change of scenery or write a list of things you’d like to try in the next 6 months.

Just take 5, pause, ask yourself a few questions and be willing to answer them honestly. Before you know it, the moment will pass. Hold off eating for one minute, then three, then five, then ten…You might still end up eating but you’ll be in a more rational state of mind. And if you do eat, do it slowly, savouring every bite.

Tune in to your body this week to take note of how you’re really feeling! All of this takes practice. And remember, eat to nourish as your first priority!

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