The Mechanisms of Emotional Hunger

Emotional hunger can be your body's response to anxiety. However, it's not the most efficient coping mechanism, since you tend to feel worse afterwards.
The Mechanisms of Emotional Hunger

Last update: 11 July, 2022

We’ve all occasionally eaten an entire tub of ice cream when we’re feeling down. This isn’t necessarily bad as an isolated event, but when it’s frequently repeated, health problems often appear. Therefore, understanding the mechanisms of emotional hunger is extremely useful as it means we can learn how to exercise control.

Stress or boredom are often the triggers for this type of behavior, which tends to make us initially feel better, but later extremely guilty. This type of hunger is usually difficult to distinguish from the physiological one since the need to eat feels the same. In addition, in a state of nervous activation, it becomes more complicated to realize the origin of this response.

In this article, we’ll explore the mechanisms that activate the physiological signals of hunger when we’re not really hungry at all.

Emotional hunger

Emotional hunger is born from intense emotions like anxiety or sadness. It’s linked to a feeling of emptiness and food acts as a ‘filler’, thus usually alleviating the negative feelings to some extent.

Continued negative emotions increase the risk of eating disorders.

This behavior, carrying with it the primitive process of alleviating needs, has a great capacity to become established behavior. Put another way, eating solves a really simple problem: not starving. Our bodies know this, so eating is always welcome when we have some kind of negative emotion to manage.

Therefore, it’s logical that, on experiencing intense or negative emotions, our brain sees the behavior of eating as a solution. If this process isn’t identified and mechanisms aren’t put in place to control it, emotional hunger takes root.

Woman very hungry at all hours

How is emotional hunger different from physiological hunger?

Physiological hunger is the natural process by which our bodies warn us that they need nutrients. They’re signals that originate in the body itself, a physiological sensation that responds to the volume of the stomach. Therefore, by stopping for a moment to reflect and listen to our bodies, we can distinguish between emotional and physiological hunger:

  • Emotional hunger is sudden. Physical hunger is gradual.
  • Emotional hunger is urgent. Physical hunger can wait, even if emptiness in the stomach is felt.
  • Emotional hunger calls for hypercaloric meals. Physical hunger tends to respond to specific nutrient needs, so other foods are usually craved.
  • Emotional hunger isn’t satiated. There’s only a brief moment of relief that quickly disappears. Physical hunger disappears with satiety.
  • Emotional hunger generates remorse and other negative feelings. Physical hunger generates satisfaction.

How to deal with emotional hunger

As was said earlier, emotional hunger is a response mechanism that we’ve all resorted to at some point in our lives. It isn’t bad to occasionally treat yourself by eating something you fancy or to go overboard with the calories on special occasions. In other words, if you feel low and order a pizza, you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it.

However, physical health problems and eating disorders lie in wait if you use emotional hunger as the solution to anxiety and other negative emotions. Like everything in life, maintaining a balance is important. To do this, you need to take certain actions like those we’ll discuss below.

1. Identify the causes

Before you start eating, take a few seconds to analyze how you feel. If the answer is a feeling like anxiety, sadness, stress, etc, it’s emotional hunger. Especially if it’s not the normal time of day for you to eat.

It’s also possible that boredom is driving you to eat. In this case, it’s easily solved: you just have to find out how to fill those gaps in your time. The most difficult cases to correct are those in which emotional eating has been a soothing mechanism since childhood. Nevertheless, even these can be sorted.

2. Work on your emotions

Emotional hunger has an origin that’s not in eating behavior. Once you’ve identified the emotional states that trigger it, you’ll need to work on them. You must attack the root of the problem.

3. Some more tips

You can’t learn how to manage stress and difficult emotions overnight. In fact, you’ll need some strategies to avoid overeating when you encounter those difficult moments. Here are some:

  • Drink water when you feel emotionally hungry. Hunger is sometimes confused with thirst. Water fills your stomach and reduces the feeling of hunger.
  • Eat healthy and attractive foods. For example, your favorite fruit or cereal bar. Anything, in fact, that you could eat on impulse that doesn’t harm your body.
  • Visualize yourself eating. It might sound silly, but imagining yourself eating before you actually do creates a feeling of fullness that eases your craving for food. If you do this, you can allow yourself to snack more often, since you won’t eat as much.
  • Use small crockery. The size of your plate and glasses influences the perception of the amount of food you eat. One way of ‘cheating’ is to ensure that the food covers a large part of the plate.
  • Avoid distractions when eating. If you pay attention to what you’re doing, you’ll be more aware of when you’ve had enough.
woman eating salmon

If you need help, go to a professional

This advice is, perhaps, the most important of all. While it’s possible to practice mindful eating on your own, don’t forget that you have the option of consulting a professional.

Remember that you have to work on both your negative emotions and your eating behavior, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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  • Halder, S., & Khaled, K. L. (2016). An Extensive Review on the Relationship between Food and Mood. International Journal of Science and Research, 5(5), 1750-1755.
  • Randler, C., Desch, I. H., Otte im Kampe, V., Wüst-Ackermann, P., Wilde, M., & Prokop, P. (2017). Anxiety, disgust and negative emotions influence food intake in humans. International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science, 7, 11-15.
  • Dressl, N., Balzaretti, M., BARROSELA, V. B., DELUCHI, D., RIOJA, M. L. B., & TORRESANI, M. E. (2019). Factores influyentes en la alimentacion emocional y el riesgo de trastornos de la conducta alimentaria en mujeres adultas. Rev Nutr Investig [Internet], 102-47.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.