Types of Hunger

Am I actually hungry or am I just emotional? Why won’t this craving go away? Should I eat now while I have a chance or wait until after my long meeting? — These are common questions people struggle with when they don’t understand types of hunger

To develop a more mindful approach to eating, it’s important to recognize the different types of hunger. Keep in mind that establishing a connection with your internal signals takes time, especially if you’ve become accustomed to responding to external cues, such as calorie counting and set mealtimes, for an extended period. But developing an understanding of why you’re hungry is a great start.

Hey, I’m Jenn, a Registered Dietitian who has a passion for helping individuals fuel, think, and move towards the best versions of themselves without sacrificing their relationship with food. If you want practical, evidence-based nutrition advice to improve your performance and wellness — Learn how I can help

This article will provide you with a clear understanding of the various types of hunger and how you can utilize this knowledge. Let’s dive in…

Biological or Physical Hunger

Physical hunger, also known as biological hunger, arises when your brain signals a need for food or energy.

Think of it this way – when your bladder stretches, your body sends a signal indicating that you need to use the restroom. Just like we don’t ignore the need to use the restroom, we shouldn’t ignore our physical hunger cues.

When you’re physically hungry, you may experience a variety of symptoms that can range from mild to severe. These include stomach gurgling or gnawing, growling noises, lightheadedness, difficulty concentrating, stomach pain, irritability, feeling faint, or a headache.

It’s important to realize that everyone experiences physical hunger differently. To get a better grasp on recognizing your own hunger and fullness cues, start by honoring your physical hunger. This will help you avoid overeating later on in the day, since the only way to address your physical hunger is by eating.

Types of Hunger — Physical symptoms of hunger

Taste Hunger

Taste hunger is the desire to eat something because it looks, smells, or sounds delicious, regardless of whether or not you are physically hungry.

Food not only nourishes us, but it also brings us joy. From biting into mini donuts at a fair to crunching on potato chips to satisfy a salt craving, or savoring a beloved family dessert during a holiday gathering, food can satisfy a craving and bring pleasure.

Many people feel guilty for having food cravings or indulging in treats at special events that may contradict diet culture rules. This leads to a “last supper” mentality, causing individuals to overeat.

Granting yourself unconditional permission to eat can help heal your relationship with food. This means that you allow yourself to eat what sounds good or what is appropriate for the occasion, without feeling guilty. 

Over time, this will help you overcome the urge to overeat as food won’t have any moral implications in your life. You will find a happy balance where you can satisfy your cravings and listen to your body’s fullness cues.

Practical Hunger

Practical hunger refers to a situation where you aren’t biologically hungry, but you recognize that if you don’t eat, you will be excessively hungry by the next opportunity to eat.

Picture this: 

  • You’re in a rush to an appointment and know you won’t have time to eat lunch. But if you don’t fuel up, you’re bound to be ravenous or hangry afterwards. 
  • You’re heading to an event, unsure if they’ll have food, so you snack up to be safe. 
  • Maybe you have a busy workday ahead with back-to-back meetings, so you load up on a hearty breakfast to get you through the day. 

These are all examples of practical hunger.

If you know that you’ll be off your usual schedule and won’t have access to food, plan ahead and eat something to tide you over.

Emotional Hunger

Emotional hunger occurs when we turn to food to deal with our emotions. It is typically linked with negative emotions, including loneliness, boredom, stress, sadness, and anger. However, it can also stem from positive feelings like happiness, joy, or excitement.

Emotional eating can vary from mild to binge-like behavior. If you’re struggling with this, try asking yourself these four questions to help make food less important during this time:

Am I physically hungry? 

If you answer yes to this question…honor your hunger and eat! If not, dive into the next questions. 

What am I feeling?

If you find yourself reaching for food when you’re not physically hungry, it’s essential to pause and reflect on your emotional state. Although this can be a challenging task, there are several strategies you can try to help yourself. You could try writing out your feelings, calling a friend to talk it out, sitting with your emotions and allowing yourself to experience them, or even seeking the help of a professional counselor or therapist.

What do I need?

Many people reach for food to satisfy an unmet need, whether it be emotional or physical. For example, if you’re feeling exhausted due to lack of sleep, eating may seem like a quick fix, but in reality, sleep may be the better solution.

Would you please…? 

After contemplating what you need, the solution may be asking for help. It’s common to turn to food as a coping mechanism when facing a problem that communication could solve. If you are feeling overwhelmed and need a 30-60 minute break from your children, talk to your partner. Many of us struggle with expressing our needs, but by communicating them, we can avoid turning to food as a coping mechanism when they go unmet.

Discovering alternative ways to cope with your emotions, not involving food, can lead to a more positive relationship with food. 

Final Thoughts

Recognizing and respecting the different types of hunger is a critical step in improving your relationship with food. Whether it’s physical, emotional, or taste-related, all forms of hunger are valid and should be acknowledged. Despite some people dismissing emotional or taste-related hunger, it is just as real as physical hunger. 

Clients often report feeling more in control around food when they gain an understanding of why they feel hungry, how to interpret hunger and fullness cues, and how to build balanced meals and snacks.

Are you ready to stop stressing about your diet  and learn realistic strategies that work? Schedule a free 15 minute call today!

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist | Website | + posts

Jenn Schmidt is a licensed and board-certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist based in Minnesota. Her specialty is in performance nutrition and wellness, which focuses on helping individuals fuel, think, and move towards their best selves without compromising their relationship with food. Jenn is passionate about all things food-related and enjoys making complex science easy to understand for her clients and readers.

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