Why Do I Feel Hungry?

Written by Emily Green

How many types of hunger can you think of?


I’m sure the first type of hunger which popped into your head is physical hunger, the main physiological sensations which let us know when our body is in need of another meal (stomach pain, grumbling tummy, difficulty concentrating, dry mouth or sweaty hands). If you’re in eating disorder recovery and learning to recognise and honour your physical hunger cues, it can be useful to know that there are many situations which may bring up a desire to eat even if you’re not noticing these classic sensations.


Different Types of Hunger

Types of hunger have been described relating to intuitive eating (1), another way to organise them is into broad categories of physical, emotional, social and practical.


Physical

Stomach Hunger

Stomach hunger is our body telling us we need to eat for energy

E.g. rumbling stomach, empty feeling, fatigue, irritability, headaches

The solution to stomach hunger is to make sure you eat enough each day and balance your meals with all the necessary macronutrients


Mouth Hunger

A desire for a specific flavour or texture of food. Sometimes we just want something crunchy or creamy or sour and that’s okay.

This type of hunger will be satisfied by honouring the craving.


Emotional

Emotional Eating

A food craving without being physically hungry. An underlying emotion (e.g. sadness) often drives the desire to use food as comfort. Our emotions are strongly connected to our gut via the vagus nerve (a.k.a the gut-brain axis) so we often “feel” our emotions in our gut. One of the most well known examples are experiencing butterflies in our stomach when we are nervous.

Emotional eating is normal and it can be argued that ALL eating is emotional in some way. Using food to manage difficult feelings is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it is not your primary coping mechanism for emotional regulation.


Deserved Hunger

Using food to cheer yourself up after a bad day.

‘Today has been rubbish, I deserve a nice dinner to cheer myself up’.

If eating something delicious will lift your mood after a stressful day then that’s a great way to cheer yourself up. However, be mindful that this mindset could transform into feeling undeserving of food in certain situations depending on how your day has been or how you have performed. And similarly to emotional eating, it can be unhealthy if this is the primary method for shifting your emotions.


Pleasure Hunger

Eating to bring yourself joy and make yourself feel good with the sensory experience of food.

Food is delicious! It’s a natural human response to gain pleasure from eating foods we enjoy. Try to factor pleasurable foods into your day.


Boredom Hunger

Eating for boredom is when you can’t think of anything better to do and food seems like an interesting option.

Eating is a pleasant sensory experience and the range of textures and flavours can be a great source of entertainment and enjoyment. Even the act of planning, preparing and cooking food can be an antidote to boredom. But do try to vary your anti-boredom activities, get outside for a walk, read a book, try a new craft or phone a friend.


Social

Social Hunger

Eating is an important part of social occasions and bringing people together. Sharing food is often a way of showing love and care.

Remember that you can enjoy social occasions with or without food, but the most important thing is spending time with people close to you.


Celebratory Hunger

Food is often a centre point of celebrations. We can come to associate and expect certain types of food at certain events. Think birthday cake, turkey at Christmas or Easter eggs.

Give yourself permission to enjoy these classic celebratory foods but remember you’re also allowed to make your own traditions.


Practical

Prophylactic Hunger

A desire to eat ‘just in case’ you’re hungry later and there’s no food. Or eating at a practical time in anticipation of being hungry later in the day which is a reason you may need to eat without physical hunger.


This may come from a scarcity mindset. If you are subconsciously worried that there may not be enough food available later, it could drive you to eat more than necessary in the present moment. It is also very normal to eat ahead of time for example if a meeting runs over your lunch break and you decide to eat a bit earlier even if you're not hungry - this is being intuitive.

A way to reassure yourself is to have a clear plan of what you are able to eat later, prepare a snack for a day out or research available shops or restaurants which you could pop into if you’re out the house.


Is Emotional Eating A Bad Thing?

Emotional eating is an umbrella term for eating in response to your feelings. It will be experienced by most people in some form however there are certain groups which more commonly eat for emotional reasons. Typically emotional eating is higher in women and individuals who are currently or have a history of dieting (2). This can be for positive OR negative reasons but in popular culture it is often associated with comforting oneself when experiencing unpleasant feelings such as sadness or stress.


Eating in response to feelings of depression, anxiety, anger or boredom have been linked to emotion regulation difficulties, disordered eating and poorer psychological well being. However, eating for pleasure was not found to be associated with any of these outcomes (3). This indicates the specific feeling which drives emotional eating plays a key role in how the experience affects an individual.


So, it entirely depends on which emotion is driving the eating behaviour and the purpose you are ‘using’ food for.


To illustrate this, if you’re celebrating a promotion and want to eat a delicious cookie because you are super proud of yourself, food is being included in that situation for a positive reason with the goal of creating a pleasant experience.


If you’ve had a stressful day, bad feedback at work and you’re feeling like a failure so you say “screw it” and eat a tub of ice cream to deal with (avoid) your feelings, this is unlikely to address the root cause to allow you to move past the experience.


How Can I Curb My Hunger?

Hunger is a useful feeling which signifies some sort of unmet need, either physiological or psychological. With this in mind, we should not be looking to curb our hunger but to satisfy the underlying need with either sufficient food, letting go of mental restriction with food, managing our stress levels, fostering positive social connections and coping with our emotions in healthy ways.


Alternative health coping mechanisms include talking about your feelings, journaling, meditating or managing stress levels with mindfulness practices, gentle exercise or socialising.


Learning to nourish your body and soul through intuitive eating, and recognising both hunger and fullness is an important step in normalising your relationship with food and body. You can learn to respond to all types of hunger in a healthy way and nourish your body.


Does Eating Without Physical Hunger Mean I Have An Eating Disorder?

No, typically this is not a cause for concern unless you are regularly eating in response to negative emotions as a way to numb, comfort or avoid managing these feelings. If eating is your ONLY coping mechanism for difficult feelings this may be a red flag for a disordered relationship with food.


Research has observed that individuals with anorexia nervosa show the highest degree of happiness-related emotional eating compared to other eating disorders. Comparatively, in bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder emotional eating relating to negative emotions was more common (4). This is likely to be related to binges which can be used to numb emotions but subsequently produce feelings of anxiety, guilt and shame. But emotional eating is not necessarily a causal factor.


In the TCN clinic our specialist dietitians regularly work with clients to improve their relationship with food, develop healthier coping mechanisms and move away from unhealthy emotional eating habits. Please reach out to us for specialist support and complete an enquiry form where our team will be in touch.


Emily Green

TCN Intern


Emily is studying MSc Clincal Nutrition, after having graduated from a degree in Nutrition & Psychology from Newcastle University. She has an interest in supporting people to overcome disordered eating, find food freedom and keep a healthy mind. You can find Emily on Instagram @nutritionupontyne and on her blog nutritionupontyne.co.uk

 

REFERENCES:

[1] Tribole, E., 2020. Intuitive Eating, 4th Edition : A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach. 4th ed. St. Martin's Press.

[2] Péneau, S., Ménard, E., Méjean, C., Bellisle, F. and Hercberg, S., 2013. Sex and dieting modify the association between emotional eating and weight status. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, [online] 97(6), pp.1307-1313. Available at: <https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/97/6/1307/4576858?login=true> [Accessed 6 June 2022].

[3] Braden, A., Musher-Eizenman, D., Watford, T. and Emley, E., 2018. Eating when depressed, anxious, bored, or happy: Are emotional eating types associated with unique psychological and physical health correlates?. Appetite, [online] 125, pp.410-417. Available at: <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666317315933> [Accessed 1 June 2022].

[4] Reichenberger, J., Schnepper, R., Arend, A., Richard, A., Voderholzer, U., Naab, S. and Blechert, J., 2021. Emotional eating across different eating disorders and the role of body mass, restriction, and binge eating. International Journal of Eating Disorders, [online] 54(5), pp.773-784. Available at: <https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/eat.23477> [Accessed 1 June 2022].

 

Talia Cecchele Nutrition is a team of registered dietitians that specialise in eating disorders and disordered eating. We aim to bring balance back to nutrition, help you to break free from food rules and find food freedom. We offer virtual consultations and group programs so whether you are based in London, the United Kingdom or around the world we would love to support you. To enquire about a private consultation please fill out a contact form.


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