Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger – Understanding Emotional Eating

by | May 26, 2023

What is emotional eating?

There is no single thing that is emotional eating. We are all experiencing emotions all the time, so it’s likely you are feeling an emotion every time you eat. If you find yourself eating and you are pretty sure you’re not hungry, learning how to distinguish emotional hunger vs physical hunger could be a helpful exploration for you. This will involve tuning in your body and your emotions, and how they interact.

In this article, I’ll explain what three types of emotional eating are and how you can get in touch with these as they arise in you. Then you can start building in nourishment and emotional strategies so you are better able to tell emotional hunger vs physical hunger and make conscious choices to get your needs met.

There are three “types” of emotional eating

1. Emotional avoidance

This type of emotional eating happens when you are experiencing a feeling that you are uncomfortable with, and you either are not willing or able to feel your feelings without eating. You could be eating to eating to soothe, comfort, distract, or numb yourself from your emotions.

2. Diet backlash

Eating in response to deprivation, restriction, and primal hunger during a diet cycle. You may blame yourself for eating, feel worse, and eat more. This is also often where binge eating comes into play.

3. Emotional hunger

Eating instead of filling yourself up with other pleasures, needs, and desires (this is kind of similar to type #2, but is a little different)

Emotional Avoidance

Emotional eating sometimes is extremely normal. Eating our favorite foods for the sheer pleasure of tasting those amazing flavors and biting into that perfect crutch IS EMOTIONAL.

Finding comfort in your mom’s lasagna or a traditional recipe from your culture is healing. We gather around food, celebrate with food. We live for these precious moments – they are some of life’s most beautiful moments.

Folks who promote biohacking for weight loss – along with diet and wellness culture – tell us that food is fuel and that if you feel more loosey goosey with food, you are weak, have no willpower, and are fundamentally flawed. Such bullshit. Who wants to live that way?

Not you? Ok, then.

So, eating for pleasure and comfort is fine and not something we want to banish from our lives. But as you go down the emotional spectrum, you may be using food to distract, numb, and punish yourself. Emotional eating exists on a spectrum, from satisfaction and comfort, to more sedative types of coping with food.

Largely, as a culture, we are confused and afraid of our “negative” emotions. We try to squash down feelings of sadness, loneliness, and pain. We ignore them, distract from them, or pretend they don’t exist.

But really, difficult feelings are a non-negotiable part of the human experience. I always recommend my clients, especially the ones using food to cope with difficult emotions, check out some of Pema Chodron’s writing. The book When Things Fall Apart has significantly affected the way I think about and handle my difficult emotions. I highly recommend this book for everyone, but especially those who have a hard time sitting with discomfort.

emotional hunger vs physical hunger emotional eating spectrum
emotional eating spectrum
What about boredom eating?

Boredom eating could fall into the category of distracting from emotion, but could also be a need or desire for stimulation, as is often the case with folks with ADHD.

Grabbing food mindlessly when you bored at work or at night could be a habit that you’re very used to. We often get the subliminal message that doing nothing is not okay, so it could be that you need a break from work or from the task at hand, and that you’re reaching for food when what you actually need is a mental break, or to change what you’re doing, seeing, or interacting with.

Our brains don’t typically like doing the same thing for hours and hours. I’m fond of the power hour mentality for productivity. It could also be that you are actually bored with your work, or bored with your life. Maybe you need a change.

As I mentioned, we are feelings emotions all the time. This can sometimes be tedious. Distracting ourselves from really difficult emotions – like extreme grief or loneliness – by having a yummy meal, or scrolling on social media, or watching an intense tv show, it a nice way to get a little relief from the intensity of your feelings for a little while.

But if you’re constantly distracting from the way you feel, it’s possible you aren’t letting yourself feel whatever it is that is coming up for you – and we need to feel and process and metabolize our emotions. And to eventually heal and move on from them.

You may think you are engaging in boredom eating, but you are actually dissatisfied with your work, unstimulated intellectually. So you are eating because you’re bored, but the real problem is that you are not being challenged in the way you need to be.

Numbing and punishing with food

Numbing with food happens when we eat in a way that makes our bodily and emotional sensations disappear. We may numb ourselves into a food coma, becoming so full so that feeling is felt more strongly than the one you were trying to get away from. Doing this on a regular basis is a form of binge eating.

Punishment with food would be when you get to numbing, and then you feel horrible about it and continue to do it to punish yourself. Past trauma can put you in a place where your difficult feelings are so intense that it feels much safer for you to eat to numb them, then to feel the feelings.

Restriction backlash

Often what we label as “emotional eating” is actually a response to physical deprivation and restriction. This is also often where binge eating comes into play. And this is what is so important to understand if you’re having a hard time distinguishing emotional hunger vs physical hunger.

Let me explain.

Constant attempts to “perfect” your body creates frustration, shame, and self-judgement. It is impossible to live up to what we’ve been told we should be able to do – be better, thinner, more shapely – permanently.

If you live outside thin ideal (hello, 70% of women), you can easily be subject to years and years of trying to shrink yourself, ‘failing’, and then blaming yourself for it. Diet culture creates the illusion of failure within you, when really it is the diet that failed. Human bodies are mean to be nourished. So, when you’re hungry and you aren’t supposed to eat, you might have some feelings about that. And the obvious choice to deal with those feelings is the thing your body is deprived of – food.

So this feels like emotional eating, but I think it’s more helpful to think of it as restriction backlash, with some added in body-based oppression-rage. If you’re only eating smoothies and chicken, or even something seemingly normal like eating only “good carbs” – you are in a state of deprivation. This alone can create a rebound effect.

Even just thinking you should say no to cupcakes and pizza can create a deprivation effect.

Real OR perceived restriction creates a desire and need to emotionally eat.

If you are in a rebound period from a diet, you are likely to be unhappy about that. Unlike diet culture likes to tell you, there is no ‘easing off’ a diet. The maintenance phase after a strict diet has rarely been chill. You may blame yourself, tell yourself you lack willpower or that you’re just gross or broken or addicted to food. Then, to soothe yourself for feeling this type of hot burning shame, you eat. And you then have proof that you have a problem. What a mind f*ck.

If this was alone the problem, that would be one thing, but add onto this the fact that these feelings are kept in the dark, hidden from, and not processed in community – they have no place to go.

This is an extremely emotional and vulnerable place to be – especially when you also grew up with the belief that your worth depends on you being thin.

This is why working on your relationship with food will never fully root if you’re not also working on your relationship with your body. If we love our bodies, we take good care of them. And that means not subjecting them to unrealistic expectations, and not eating the whole pizza because it keeps you up all night with reflux.

Emotional hunger

I like to think of emotional hunger as a life or spiritual longing. So emotional hunger might look like eating instead of filling yourself up with other pleasures, needs, and desires.

We have “hungers” that have nothing to do with needing physical nourishment, and so food will not satisfy them. Needs such as sexual pleasure, community, intellectual stimulation, and connection with our true, authentic selves. (if this struck a chord, listen to this)

If you find yourself reaching for food to deal with things such as these, you may find that no amount of food will be “enough”.

Self-silencing

As kids, boys are often taught that sadness is less appropriate than anger, and girls are commonly taught that pride is ugly and selfish. This has resulted in men acting out of violence and anger more often (perhaps when they’re feeling sad?) and women constantly second-guessing themselves and deferring to others for their feelings. I heard a great episode of We Can Do Hard Things, where they quoted a study about little boys and little girls. I can’t seem to find the study, but basically, Glennon says:

“They put a bunch of little boys in one room and a bunch of little girls in another room. They went in and asked the boys who was hungry. Many hands shot up without hesitation. They went into the girl’s room and asked who was hungry. The girls all looked around the room to see what everyone else thought. They were looking for approval.”

Women are socialized to defer to the group instead of asking ourselves what we feel. Self-silencing, or ignoring your feelings, needs, and desires, has been ,shown to contribute to disordered eating (1).

Women often engage in self-silencing of their needs and desires in order to go along. It is what we’ve been taught. This squashing down of ourselves, shrinking ourselves, silencing ourselves, leaves us feeling in need of filling the void of feeling inauthentic.

Other things to think about…

Don’t forget to check your stress levels

Stress is high on a collective level. So no surprise that stress eating may be the problem I hear about the most frequently in this area. We are all too busy, stretched too thin, and too stressed out.

Many experts say that it is our labeling of emotions as good and bad that creates the need to cope with “negative emotions”. So, through this lens – your stress could be a sign that something is out of balance, perhaps that you have too much on your plate, or you’re not creating the boundaries that you need at work or with your partner.

Our culture’s obsession with productivity, what I hilariously heard referred to as “rise and grind” culture on NPR the other day keeps us all over-worked and stressed out. Learning to keep boundaries in your life so that you are engaging all your needs can help with emotional eating.

How to distinguish emotional hunger vs physical hunger

1. Explore how the dieting and the pursuit of thinness is affecting you emotionally

Take a good look at how following strict rules affects the way you eat. I know this is tricky, but I promise you – loosening the rules will help you eat more calmly and stop feeling pulled around by emotional eating. And I know what you’re thinking – but then I’ll just keep eating cookies and ice cream forever and keep gaining weight until I can’t leave the house.

That’s not how this works. Especially if you remember to work on your mindset too and get support if you need it.

It’s been shown that people who have rigid or even flexible control over their diets are more likely to have negative body image and disordered eating, including binge eating, than folks who use intuitive eating.

2. Shifting your mindset to an intuitive eating approach can drastically improve the way you eat, the way you think about food, and the relationship you have with eating and your body.

Do these in this order:

  1. Stop restricting yourself.
  2. Stop judging your food choices.
  3. Get curious about how different foods feel in your body.
  4. Get in touch with your emotions on a physical level.

3. Build compassion and curiosity about your feelings.

If you feel like eating a snack, ask yourself these things:

  1. Am I hungry? If so – eat, don’t judge
  2. If I’m not hungry, what am I feeling?
  3. I’m restless…. dig deeper… what am I uneasy about?
  4. Where do I feel that uneasiness in my body? How does that feel?

If you can give yourself 5 seconds to pause and ask yourself what you’re feeling, you may find space to figure out what you really need or want.

4. Get curious about what desires and needs you may have that you have not let yourself fulfill.

Strengthening and deepening your relationship with yourself can be an essential part of the journey to heal your relationship with food. No, this part is not easy, but what could be more rewarding. You may find some part of you that were asking to see the light of day, and even though it may not feel related, this can be really helpful to lessen your reliance on food for comfort.

So many incredible writers have spoken eloquently on cultivating more self-love. Here’s an excellent episode of one of my new favorite episodes, The Homecoming Podcast. Dr. Thema invites us to consider what we are hungry for.

Loneliness and eating often go hand-in-hand. If we are binge eating, it is likely happening only when we’re alone. But eating will not solve loneliness either. That is because the solution to loneliness is to let yourself feel lonely. Loneliness is part of the human condition and therefore it is to be expected that we feel lonely sometimes. Tough stuff.

“So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn’t sit for even one, that’s the journey of the warrior.”

Pema Chodron

If boredom eating at work is your issue, a diet isn’t what you need. You may need to ask for more responsibility, or find a more satisfying job. If you find yourself eating at night when you’re bored, there could be many reasons. Sometimes, eating more at night is due to restriction of food during the day, but it could also be that you’re tense and stressed all day, not getting anytime to yourself, and so at night you feel free to relax. So perhaps looking at finding other ways to relax and unwind would help.

The more you explore why diet culture exists and why we’re all so obsessed with thinness, the better you’ll be able to reject the systems of oppression that show up for all of us on a daily basis.

I recommend reading Reclaiming Body Trust, Intuitive Eating 4th ed, Eating in the Light of the Moon, to start.

If the way you relate to your eating and your emotions feels like it could use some TLC, I hope you found this helpful. Sign up for my biweekly newsletter to get more tips like these delivered to your inbox.

Do you want coaching for emotional eating?

Learn about how we can work together to heal your relationship with food, your body, and yourself. My high-touch, highly individualized 6-month non-diet nutrition therapy program, Heal & Nourish, has open enrollment. And if a group dynamic is what you’re craving, check out The Love Food Again Program and apply to join the next cohort.

About Emily

Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in intuitive eating, mindfulness-based eating practices, embodiment with food and movement, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps womxn find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her here.

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Resources from this post

  1. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0361684310388785
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28131005/

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emily on couch intuitive eating counselor near me

Hey there, I´m Emily

A non-diet and weight-inclusive dietitian, nutrition therapist, and body image healer. Here on the blog, I share recipes, tips on living a healthy life without the oppressive, fear-mongering diet culture rhetoric, and get fired up about the subtle ways the patriarchy has harmed womens’ health. I want us all to be free to own our appetites, our desires, and eat really, really well. 

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