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Is It Emotional Eating or Physical Hunger You Are Experiencing?

The next time you get a sudden food craving, try to decide, is it real hunger or emotional hunger?


Did you find yourself eating over the holidays even when you weren’t hungry? Food is a source of nourishment, but food can also be used to alleviate loneliness, depression, boredom, anger, and even happiness. If you found yourself eating after experiencing one of the above, and you weren’t hungry, this is called emotional eating.

Emotional eating is a way people attempt to try and make themselves feel better and gain a sense of wellbeing. Often people eat what we refer to as “comfort foods” when doing this. This type of eating can sabotage weight loss and increase weight gain.

Generally, any benefit you get from emotional eating, is usually short lived. It becomes a habit to help cope with both positive and negative emotions. The emotional problem or situation is never addressed; food, instead is used to soothe emotions. It’s also not uncommon to look back and regret food choices that you made when your feelings (not your stomach) directed what you ate. Learning to distinguish emotional eating from true hunger can help raise awareness so that you can take effective steps to deal with emotional eating next time you are faced with it.

Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly, makes you crave specific foods. It isn’t satisfied with a full stomach. It triggers feeling of guilt, powerlessness, or shame. Whereas physical hunger comes on gradually. You’re in no hurry to eat. There are lots of appealing options but the hunger stops when you are full. It doesn’t leave you feeling as guilty.

With the past year we have had, there are many who may be experiencing emotional eating. Triggers for emotional eating may include, but certainly aren’t limited to:  unemployment, financial pressure, health problems, stress at home, relationship conflicts, work stress and/or fatigue.

There are ways we can identify eating due to emotions instead of hunger. Your eating has a trigger: You’re stressed with telecommuting, homeschooling or your boss criticized you. Your home Wi-Fi is not strong enough for everyone to accomplish what is expected of them. Your first response to a stressful or otherwise challenging situation is to head to the kitchen. Physical hunger makes itself known because some time has passed since your last meal, most likely four hours or so.

Your hunger comes on fast: In emotional eating your mind and mouth guide you. You might tell yourself, if I can have one piece of chocolate, I’ll feel better. One minute you’re going about your business, the next, you are starving. Real hunger is rooted in the stomach. It rumbles slightly. An hour later, it growls. Your body sends you steady, progressive clues that you need to eat.

You can’t wait to eat: You’re looking for anything to eat in that moment. However, with physical hunger, you would like to eat soon, but you also know that you can wait. For example, having dinner in the late afternoon instead of waiting to join your family for dinner.

The last emotional eating is an example of one food item. You want chips, and only chips. In fact, it might even be so specific that you only want one brand and flavor of chip.True hunger, on the other hand, tends to leave you more flexible. You may have preferences in the brand of chips you want, but you are open to other flavors. The goal is simply to be fed in true hunger situations.

Now that you know what emotional eating is, how do we fight it? There are no quick fixes. It takes time and effort. Some suggestions offered by professionals include keeping a food journal. Keep notes of what time, how you were feeling and what you ate. Did you just get a stressful email from work and you find yourself going to the refrigerator? Learning this can help redirect your eating to another behavior such as taking a walk.

If your emotional eating is due to stress, what can you do to curb that? Yoga, Tai-chi, walking, journaling, doodling, anything that can help keep you calm can help. These tactics can help redirect you away from emotional eating.

The next time you get a sudden food craving, try to decide, is it real hunger or emotional hunger? A well-balanced diet following MyPlate and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans will keep your body nourished and properly fueled. Treats occasionally are ok, but emotional eating can lead to bad habits that can be hard to break. If you have tried self-help options and still can’t get control of your emotional eating, you should seek professional help.

For more information, contact the Miller County Extension Office, 870-779-3609. We're online at, on Facebook and Twitter @MillerCountyFCS or on the web at

By Carla Due
County Extension Agent - FCS
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Media Contact: Carla Due
County Extension Agent - FCS
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
400 Laurel Street, Suite 215 Texarkana AR 71854
(870) 779-3609


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