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Emotional Eating: How to Distinguish Real Hunger from Emotional Hunger

The purpose of eating is to provide your body with the energy and nutrients it needs for performance. But eating has another component - pleasure. People learn to associate foods with certain attributes, sweetness, a touch of salt, fattiness, or a pleasing texture - with pleasure. Plus, eating has social connotations. Many family and social gatherings involve food. So, people learn to associate certain foods and eating with pleasure.

The desire to eat also stems from emotional needs and longings. Emotional eating, or eating to soothe emotions, is a common problem. Studies show 40% of people eat more when they're stressed. Food choices change too. The emphasis turns to comfort foods high in sugar and fat rather than healthier fare, like fruit or vegetables. Comfort foods have a way of shifting the focus away from uncomfortable or unpleasant emotions, and that's why it's so common.

Distinguishing True Hunger from Emotional Hunger

One problem people who are emotional eaters is they have a hard time distinguishing between true physical hunger and emotional hunger, the desire to eat to soothe emotion. What is the difference between true, or physical, hunger and emotional hunger?

If you have real hunger or physical hunger from low energy stores, any type of food sounds appealing, even a plate of broccoli. When it's emotional hunger, a narrower range of foods whet your appetite. These are made up of comfort foods and those high in fat or sugar. If you're eating for emotional reasons, you'll crave foods like French fries, macaroni and cheese, pizza, or other high-carb fare or foods high in sugar.

One test of whether it's physical or emotional hunger is to think about eating a healthy food, like an apple. Does an apple sound appealing, or will only a cookie or brownie do? If only something sweet will satisfy you, it's emotional hunger you're experiencing. By asking yourself this question, you can learn to distinguish between real hunger and emotional hunger.

Emotional Hunger Comes on Fast

True hunger, from depleted energy stores, makes itself known gradually, while emotional hunger often appears out of the blue. When you suddenly experience a craving or desire to eat, step back and ask yourself what was happening when the urge to eat came on? How quickly did the urge to eat hit you? Keep a journal of your cravings, what your mental state was, and what you were doing when it came on. Most people never question how hungry they are. Instead, they mindlessly reach for a snack. By taking the time to look at the context of your hunger, and how and why you experienced it, you'll learn to distinguish real and emotional hunger. Keep distance between that first sensation of hunger and the reaction of reaching for a snack. Put the snack on pause and evaluate further.

What Are You Doing When You Feel Hungry?

What are you doing at the time hunger comes on? If you're watching television, those feelings of hunger may not be the real thing. Many people are conditioned to reach for a snack when they're engaged in certain activities, like watching television. There's a reason they sell popcorn at movie theaters!

It's a good practice not to snack while watching television or eat when you're doing anything else. Eating while distracted with another task makes it easy to lose track of how much you're putting in your mouth. According to Harvard Health, people consume more food when they don't focus on what they're eating. They also eat more after that meal in snacks.

The solution? Learn to recognize physical hunger, but also to eat more mindfully. Tune into the sights, textures, and aroma of the food you're eating. Appreciate each bite and make it count. It takes practice, but you can learn to consume food in a more mindful and engaged manner.

The Bottom Line

All hunger is not the same; some hunger is motivated by emotions and has nothing to do with providing your body with energy or nutrients. Nonproductive snacking can also come in the form of unconscious eating. You've already eaten a meal that satisfied you, but there's a snack nearby and you eat it because it's there. Adopting a mindful approach to eating can also help you tame unconscious eating and snacking. Awareness is key.


Jalo E, Konttinen H, Vepsäläinen H, Chaput JP, Hu G, Maher C, Maia J, Sarmiento OL, Standage M, Tudor-Locke C, Katzmarzyk PT, Fogelholm M. Emotional Eating, Health Behaviours, and Obesity in Children: A 12-Country Cross-Sectional Study. Nutrients. 2019 Feb 7;11(2):351. doi: 10.3390/nu11020351. PMID: 30736444; PMCID: PMC6412589.

"Distracted eating may add to weight gain - Harvard Health." 29 Mar. 2013,

"Emotional Eating? 5 Reasons You Can't Stop | Psychology Today." 18 Sept. 2013,

"Hunger pangs (pains): 7 causes and how to alleviate them." 04 May. 2018,


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