Emotional eating: Hungry, or sad?

Emotional eating: Hungry, or sad?

Most of my clients would describe themselves as being emotional or stress eaters at some or the other point in time. Food can act as comfort - like a big hug after a stressful day. But how can you tell whether your hunger is real or emotional? To break the cycle, you need to learn to distinguish between emotional hunger and physical hunger.

1) Emotional hunger happens suddenly

It hits you very suddenly and can lead to intense and overwhelming cravings. Physical hunger on the other hand, is more of a slow, gradual process and develops over a longer period of time.

2) It's all in your head

Physical hunger comes from the stomach. It is the growling sound you hear from your stomach after a long day without food. Stomach pains are also signs of physical hunger. Emotional eating is a craving you can't seem to get out of your head, and you are very focused on the smell, texture and taste of a food. Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly with the food you crave; physical hunger can wait. Next time a craving hits - figure out where it is coming from: your stomach or your head.

3) It makes you want specific foods

When you're physically hungry, your body craves food in general. Almost any type of food sounds good when you haven't eaten for a while.

With emotional hunger, there is often a particular food or brand you crave and nothing else will do. Most likely, high fat or sugary foods that will provide an instant rush.

4) Emotional eating is mindless eating

With emotional eating, it is easy to finish an entire slab chocolate or big bag of crisps without even noticing. When you are hungry, you are more focused on taste, texture and smell.

5) Emotional eating is persistent

When eating when emotional, your hunger does not go away when you feel full. It persists beyond fullness. If you still want to eat, although you are full, it is normally a sign of emotional eating.

6) You end up feeling guilty

Guilt and regret happens because you know that you are or weren't eating for nutritional reasons. You are not likely to feel ashamed when eating to satisfy physical hunger.

Now that you know the signs of emotional eating, try to be more conscious of your body and cravings next time you're off to buy a slab chocolate after a stressful day. Take a moment to pause and reflect on your state of mind and how your day was. Ask yourself what are other, more productive ways in which you can relieve stress or sadness. Try exercise, yoga, meditation, a phone call to a friend, a warm bath or a cup of hot tea before turning to comfort food. This will also help you to determine whether or not you are actually hungry.


Thank you for reading this post, I hope you found the information useful!

Claudine Ryan, Registered Dietitian, RD (SA)

Written by : Claudine Ryan, Registered Dietitian, RD (SA)

Claudine Ryan holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Dietetics and is registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa. Claudine is passionate about people and their health, and enjoys helping others to optimise their health and manage their chronic lifestyle related diseases through sound nutritional therapy and practical advice.