Hunger Games: Understanding Emotional vs. Physical Hunger

Article By: Whittany Gibson, RDN

Whittany is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who specializes in bariatric nutrition counseling, providing education and support prior to and following weight loss surgery.

We’ve all been there before... You open up the refrigerator and survey its contents for something to eat even though you just had a full meal. You think to yourself, “am I actually hungry or am I just trying to satisfy an emotional need?” The battle between emotional and physical hunger is real – and it can be tough to distinguish which one you’re feeling in the moment. This can be even more challenging to decipher if you've had weight loss surgery. Let’s take a look at how emotional and physical hunger differ so you can make a more informed decision next time your stomach starts rumbling!

1) Signs of emotional hunger. Emotional hunger is quite different from physical hunger. It typically comes on suddenly and doesn’t go away until we feel emotionally satisfied. It also often feels like it needs to be satisfied immediately with food, even if that means choosing something processed or unhealthy over something nutritious. In addition, emotional hunger often triggers cravings for salty or sugary snacks.

2) Signs of physical hunger. Physical hunger usually builds gradually and is easily satiated with healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. Signs of physical hunger include a growling stomach, lightheadedness, irritability, and loss of energy. Physical hunger does not have any specific craving associated with it – instead, it is more of an overall sensation of needing food in order to maintain energy levels. Following WLS, you may find this difficult to determine. Hunger may now feel like a pit in your stomach or can induce an increase in acid production leaving you feeling nauseous. It’s different for many people as to what hunger feels like with your new stomach. It’s best to stay in a routine of having something nutritious every three hours or so, not allowing too much time in between meals.

When choosing between emotional versus physical hunger, it’s important to pause and ask yourself why you are feeling the urge to eat in the first place. What emotion are you trying to suppress? Is there anything else that could help satisfy that emotion instead of eating? If so, try engaging in an activity such as walking or reading a book until the feeling passes.

3) Summing it up. Understanding whether or not what you’re feeling is emotional or physical hunger can be tricky, but with practice comes progress! Learning how to identify these two different types of hunger will help you make better decisions when deciding what type of food to eat. After all, recognizing whether or not your body really needs nourishment from food helps keep your energy levels balanced throughout the day! So next time your stomach starts talking to you, stop and ask yourself... Is this emotional or physical hunger? The answer may surprise you!

BariMelts provides general recommendations, not to be construed as medical advice. Please consult your doctor.

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