Emotional hunger or physiological hunger?

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Louise Hay
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Emotional hunger or physiological hunger?

Emotions also stimulate hunger. This type of appetite, in addition to overweight or health problems, mainly causes unhappiness, suffering and guilt. It is therefore important to learn to distinguish emotional from physiological hunger.

Written and verified by the psychologist GetPersonalGrowth.

Last update: 15 November 2021

Sadness is also eaten, as well as the stress or frustration of a bad working day. It is not always easy to distinguish between emotional hunger and physiological hunger. And that's how appetite-related anxiety ends up resulting in cholesterol, high blood pressure, overweight, and other health problems. In addition to the physiological problems, another far more complex challenge is added.



We speak of suffering, dissatisfaction, guilt and unhappiness, albeit with different nuances. We have all gone through periods in which nervousness has led us to adopt incorrect eating patterns. The period of exams or a high workload often favors such behaviors.

Some realities, however, go unnoticed. Eating disorders, for example, manifest themselves in this way. On the other hand, nutrition is intimately conditioned by our state of mind and, at times, we fall into states from which it is difficult to get out. Emotional hunger will never ask for a plate of vegetables.

Anxiety prefers junk food, which is why if we don't deal with what lies behind the anxiety, we risk reinforcing a behavior in which food becomes the vehicle for emotional release. Let's see in the next lines how to recognize emotional hunger and physiological hunger.

Emotional hunger: symptoms, causes and coping strategies

When it becomes a constant, emotional hunger reflects an eating disorder. Most of the scientific studies on the subject show that anxiety disorders are, in most cases, the etiological factor of these eating problems.



Research carried out at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota (United States) tells us about this relationship. The author of the study, Dr. Corine Webb, states that many people have poor ability to manage the emotional states that fuel compulsive hunger. These are undoubtedly complex situations that should be investigated.

How to understand if it is emotional hunger and not physiological hunger?

It might sound simple, but in reality it is not at all; in fact there are many people who are unable to recognize emotional hunger from physiological hunger. So let's see some characteristics of emotional hunger.

  • The desire to eat occurs suddenly and impulsively, in the form of cravings.
  • Generally episodes of emotional hunger are satisfied in solitude.
  • The brain looks for foods that generate feelings of pleasure, real cocktails of serotonin. The so-called junk food is the one that best performs this task.
  • Emotional hunger occurs with greater intensity in situations characterized by commitments and pressures. For example, today we should have started working on that project which we will have to present next week. Instead, we find ourselves sitting on the sofa eating chips, pizza or ice cream.
  • It is difficult to quench this type of hunger. We keep eating because we try to fill a void, to allay anxiety and deceive it with something gratifying.
  • It is good to clarify that eating out of anxiety generates feelings of guilt. You continue to eat to calm your anxiety, but you end up feeling dissatisfied and uncomfortable.
  • We blame ourselves for being unable to maintain control, even knowing that we are dealing with harmful foods. Failing to avoid it creates further frustration.

What is the cause of emotional hunger?

The trigger for anxiety lies in the emotions. They respond to very different situations, but in this specific case it is possible to identify some of them that are particularly relevant:



  • High levels of self-need.
  • Constant need to have everything under control. It might seem ironic, but there is an explanation: the need to have everything in order and under control can become exhausting and generate a sudden rebound effect. Such exhaustion seeks an escape valve in junk food.
  • Low self-esteem and recognizing food as a rewarding refuge.
  • Food is seen as a way to escape from periods of high stress or simply a bad day.

Strategies for calming and controlling food-related anxiety

To calm the anxiety related to emotional hunger, there is an important aspect to consider. If such behavior has been repeated for a long time, it is necessary to consult a professional specialized in eating disorders. Psychologists and nutritionists are the most suitable figures in these cases.


On the contrary, if it concerns occasional episodes, or if we are aware of falling into unhealthy eating habits and behaviors only at certain times, we can follow the following guidelines:

  • Recognize the sources of stress and anxiety that lead to impulsive eating. You have to learn to manage them and keep them under control by looking at them from a different perspective.
  • Introducing changes in your routine, a motivating activity that helps channel anxiety: play sports, sign up for a dance class.
  • Seeking other healthier rewards.
  • Avoid eating alone.
  • Plan your diet without leaving room for improvisation.
  • Shopping at the supermarket with a detailed list of healthier foods. This habit will help you avoid temptation.
  • Learn to manage emotions through relaxation techniques.

All of us have had to deal with the emptiness of emotional hunger at some point in our lives. With that hole in the stomach that is hardly satisfied, despite the food.


Those inner voids are always the product of a mind that requires attention, of a self-esteem that needs to be repaired and strengthened. Do not hesitate, therefore, to consult a good professional; health, both physical and mental, is extremely important.

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