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What Type Of Hunger Is This?

Types of Hunger Beyond Physical

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What Are The Types Of Hunger?

There are way more than one or even two types of hunger! All types of hunger have a wide array of physiological and emotional components.

Too often we like to think of the human experience as being black and white. The notion of we are either “hungry” or “not hungry” is crap! Let’s explore why from both a physical and emotional perspective.

We mostly get our ideas about types of hunger from diet culture and the media. According to popular opinion- you get two choices: physical and emotional.

And the underlying message that often comes with the media’s ideas of hunger are

  • physical=good
  • emotional=bad

This idea is so archaic from both a medical and psychological standpoint! Here’s is why the way most of us view hunger is highly flawed! 

  • Hunger is often layered with components of both physical and psychiatric contributors. 
  • There are dozens of ways to psychologically connect with food and each offers a unique experience. 
  • Emotional or “non-physical” triggers for hunger can quickly cause physiological responses, therefore, blurring the line between physical and emotional hunger. 

Let’s explore further how the idea of only two types of hunger is complete crap- and how we can explore our experience with hunger and fullness in a better way!

What Is The Difference Between Emotional Hunger and Physical Hunger?

When we experience physical hunger, there are many hormones produced in the body. There are enzymatic and hormonal responses to emotional responses as well, they just look a little different. We’ll explore those below.

Hormones and enzymes produced during physical hunger: 

  • Grehlin– which is triggered by insulin being released in the body. 
  • Neuropeptide-Y-causes us to seek carbohydrate-rich foods in response to hunger
  • Salivary Amylase– starts digestion in the mouth and is produced in the presence of food. Salivary amylase can also be produced in response to smells or familiar spaces associated with food. 

Here is the catch.  While these hormones and enzymes increase with increased physical hunger, they can also increase with opportunity to consume food or emotions.

Physical responses to emotional hunger: 

  • Stress can increase cortisol which can increase our appetites. 
  • Opportunity can cause shifts in hormones which stimulate a physical desire to eat (for example, it’s 12:00 which is our typical lunchtime or I always stop at the subway on when I hit 12th street and thus begin to experience hunger cues when I hit that avenue). 

Now there are of course differences in physical and emotional hunger. For example, physical hunger tends to build over a period of time, while emotional hunger is often more immediate.  Those experiencing emotional hunger may also have a very intense desire for a specific food choice.

If we are feeling distressed when it comes to emotional hunger, this is likely related to deprivation in honoring physical hunger, emotional hunger or both. 

We can typically rate our physical hunger on a scale of 1-10.  When we first start with exploring how our bodies feel and what it needs, distinguishing where we are at on a hunger/fullness scale may be difficult. 

However, many can determine A measurement of 1 on a hunger fullness scale involves extreme physical discomfort and an urgency to consume food. 

A measurement of 10 typically means we’re uncomfortably full. 

The important thing to remember is that while there are differences in both physical and emotional hunger, they are BOTH important to honor if we are wanting to satiate our hunger and learn to trust our bodies. 

It’s also important to remember that even if our emotional hunger is stemming from an event or situation in our lives other than the physical need to nourish, it can quickly have real physical implications in the body if the emotional need isn’t satisfied. 

What Are The Signs of Physical Hunger?

It’s really important to distinguish that these recommendations for navigating and honoring physical hunger are not meant for people with eating disorders. Those with eating disorders likely will not experience normal if any type of hunger or fullness cues. If this pertains to you, it’s important you work carefully with a HAES dietitian to formulate an appropriate eating disorder recovery meal plan.

For those of us that are experiencing hunger cues, most of us know some of the obvious signs of physical hunger.  These might include symptoms such as: 

  • Growling stomach
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness

These are usually experienced at the extreme end of the intuitive eating hunger scale (Say a 1 if we are starting with 1 as the hungriest on the scale). 

However, there are many signs of physical hunger we may not think about.  

Less common signs of physical hunger: 

  • Thoughts of food
  • Fantasies of food that sounds good
  • Salivation surrounding pictures and thoughts of food
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Boredom
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness

What Are The Types of Emotional Hunger?

Many often think of emotional hunger as being negative.  Some may devalue emotional hunger as simply a response to stress or other non-physical cues. 

However, if we want to truly honor our bodies and limit feeling out of control with food it is important we learn to honor our emotional hunger in healthy ways.

Here are some examples of non-physical (or emotional) hunger: 

  • Opportunistic hunger: If we have a movie to attend at 7 and 6 p.m. is our only time to eat for the evening, it makes sense to have a meal when it’s available. 
  • Taste hunger: we may eat simply because something is familiar, we crave the taste, or it’s only available in certain spaces or seasons (such as the holidays or on a vacation). 
  • Food Competition: Those of us that come from big families know this one well.  If we’ve constantly got someone gobbling up the good stuff, we’re going to dig into as much as possible as quickly as we can! 
  • Scarcity hunger:  If we’ve experienced food insecurity in the past, either from financial insecurities or lack of food availability we are likely to eat past our physical threshold of fullness
  • Anticipation of restriction: While this is similar to scarcity hunger, it falls more in line with intentional dietary restrictions anticipated. This could be related to dieting or disordered eating patterns. 
Types Of Hunger

What Is “Head Hunger”

Head hunger is a common term used post-bariatric surgery to describe emotional hunger. 

While head hunger is a type of emotional hunger, it’s important to remember that emotional hunger can quickly transition into carrying the hormonal and enzymatic reactions of physical hunger. 

What makes head hunger associated with bariatric surgery a little more difficult to navigate is that the physical size of our stomach is diminished. 

However, shifting our body autonomy does not negate the importance of honoring emotional hunger. Nor the fact that there will still be physiological effects of emotional hunger such as hormonal changes. 

Some ways to honor emotional hunger or “head hunger” post bariatric surgery include:

  • Having one bite or a small quantity  of desired food choice until feeling satiated 
  • Dismissing the idea of off-limits foods
  • Keeping a variety of food choices available
  • Honoring physical hunger 

Can I Stop Emotional Hunger?

We can temporarily suppress both physical and emotional hunger.  However, this is very dangerous and can easily lead to binge-restrict cycles. It can also trigger eating disorders. It can also lead to hoarding food. Our hunger/fullness cues can be interrupted or skewed.

Some things that may lead to hunger suppression include: 

  • dieting
  • stress
  • trauma
  • unmet basic needs
  • numbing hunger with calorie-free beverages and foods to take up space in the body

While emotional hunger is a valid way to manage emotions and respond to our body’s needs, it should not be the ONLY way. 

The problem with honoring emotional hunger comes when we cannot imagine using another coping strategy to honor our mental and emotional needs. 

If you are not feeling physically hungry, try implementing other stress coping strategies before or in addition to going for food to help you get more in tune with your body’s true needs and desires.

What Other Coping Strategies Aside From Emotional Eating or Restriction Can I use?

Food (or absence of food) can be a very powerful reinforcer because its effects are

  • Immediate
  • Intense (very rewarding for the effort put in)

This will cause eating behavior to surpass all other coping strategies for emotional regulation if we are not careful. 

Some other things you might try to help with emotional regulation include: 

  • hula hooping
  • gardening
  • playing games
  • medication
  • crossword puzzles
  • taking a bath
  • journaling

It’s very important to remember that activities outside of eating food or restricting food to manage emotions will likely not be intense. This may lead us to believe initially that the ONLY way we can regulate our emotions is through food. 

I would encourage you to continue to practice these stress reducing activities, as their effectiveness in coping will get bigger over time. 

What Are Strategies You Use To Distinguish Hunger?

It can be helpful to keep a food log or journal to determine physical hunger/fullness levels, food patterns throughout the day, and other coping mechanisms we may be using to manage stress. 

These eating disorder recovery quotes can also be powerful affirmations as we learn to navigate the cues of our bodies and give ourselves grace.

If you are feeling out of control with food, you may be experiencing a binge. It’s important to remember that binge eating is not the same as emotional eating.  If you feel you are experiencing a binge it may be best to reach out to your healthcare provider for an eating disorder assessment.

I encourage you to acknowledge the type of hunger you are experiencing at each meal/snack without judgment. Honor that both physical and emotional hunger are valid reasons to nourish our body. 

These eating disorder recovery books are also an excellent way to share in the journeys of how others came to navigate hunger and some of the physiological mechanisms of hunger as well.

Ask yourself how you feel before, during and after you consume the food for clarity and to check in with your body. Are there any strategies you use to check in during meals and snacks?  Please share in the comments below!

Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian

Hi I'm Shena. I'm an eating disorders dietitian in Washington state. I hold bachelors degrees nutrition & dietetics, cultural anthropology & psychology. I believe in honoring your hunger, having your cake whenever you want it, and that critically analyzing diet culture can change the world!