There are many reasons that you eat, but not all of these have to do with the physical need for food. In fact, many of the motivations that cause you to reach for a snack or eat more have nothing to do with your nutritional needs and everything to do with your mental and emotional desires.

And learning the difference between psychological and physical hunger can help you stay on track and make healthier choices in your diet.

What is Psychological Hunger?

There is no physical need for survival when it comes to psychological hunger (*). Instead of eating to keep your body alive, you are eating to satisfy a desire, unmet need, or emotional upset that your mind has convinced you the food will help resolve. You eat because you are bored, lonely, or unfulfilled, not because you physically require food.

Psychological hunger is about filling a void in your heart or mind, but unfortunately, no matter how much or what you eat, that void cannot be filled by food. This type of eating behavior can lead to excess weight, more psychological strain, and a vicious cycle that is hard to break.

How can you identify if you are eating out of mental or emotional need rather than physical hunger?

Here are five signs that your eating habits are coming from the mind, and not your stomach.

1. Your Hunger is Not in Your Belly

Want to know if you are really hungry or eating for another purpose? Try this. The next time you go to eat, stop and stand still for a minute. Think about which part of your body is demanding attention. Where are you feeling hungry? Place your hand over the area that is “talking” to you. If you put your hand on your stomach, then you are physically hungry, but if you hand lands on your head, heart, or somewhere else, then you are eating to satisfy a different need.

2. Your Stomach is Not Empty

The next time you decide it is time for a snack or meal, take a minute to consider your hunger level. If you were to rate how physically hungry you are, with 1 being absolutely starving, 5 being satisfied, and 10 being completely stuffed, how hungry are you right now? If your hunger ranks between 1 and 4, then it is time to eat. If you rate is higher than 5, then you are not eating for physical reasons, so ask yourself what you are trying to fulfill instead.

3. You Crave Specific Foods

If you are hungry for a specific food, especially if that food is high in fat, salt, or sugar, then you are likely not eating for any physical need. After all, physical hunger is about nutrition, so if you are hungry, then a healthy salad or piece of fruit will satisfy your requirement. But if your hunger is demanding chocolate, fries, or some other indulgence, then you should look elsewhere to satisfy your cravings.

4. You Feel Hungry Very Quickly

Physical hunger comes on very slowly, building over time as your belly empties and your physical need sets in. Emotional or mental hunger often strikes without warning, hitting you with an urgency that demands attention and focus. If you find that you are suddenly starving without notice, ask yourself what just happened to trigger this intense need. What preceded this change in your hunger? Often, this will give you a clue as to the real source of your hunger.

5. Your Hunger Disappears without Food

If you are eating not long after your last meal, your hunger may be more mental than physical. After all, with food in your stomach, how likely are you to still have physical, nutritional needs? Before taking another but, sit quietly and reflect. Feel your hunger.

Rate your void. Is your stomach still rumbling or achy? Do you still feel pangs?

If so, then you may need more to eat, but wait 20 minutes and see how you feel. If, after that time, you still feel empty or like you need more food, then it is okay to eat more. But often, waiting just a little while will be all you need to feel full again.

Learning to differentiate between physical and mental hunger can help you to curb your cravings and get your eating under control. It is the key to releasing yourself from the emotional patterns that guide your consumption and enables you to focus on eating the nutrition your body needs and deserves.

Hunger Scale

Hunger Scale
hunger level diary

Practice Intuitive Eating

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating is an evidenced-based, mind-body health approach, comprised of 10 Principles and created by two dietitian, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995.

The principles work by either cultivating or removing obstacles to body awareness, a process known as interoceptive awareness.

Essentially, Intuitive Eating is a personal process of honoring health by listening and responding to the direct messages of the body in order to meet your physical and psychological needs.

What Is Not Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive Eating is not a diet or food plan. It’s journey of self-discovery and connection to the needs of your mind and body.

There is nothing to count: this includes no counting of calories, carbs, points, or macros.

Ultimately, you are the expert of your body. Only you know what hunger , fullness, and satisfaction feels like. Only you know your thoughts, feelings and experiences.

Intuitive Eating

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Free Download Hunger Scale Booklet

hunger scale booklet

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