A woman staring ahead holding glazed donuts. Caption reads: What are you hungry for? Honing in on your motivation to eat when you’re not hungry.

Eating That Doesn’t Satisfy

Many suffer from what is known as emotional or binge eating. They differ in specific triggers or how they became habit, but the commonalities in them make it possible to take them together here in this post. In these conditions food is eaten for soothing, pleasure, or as a distraction from uncomfortable feelings or situations instead of for sustenance as food is intended. It is used as a coping mechanism to alleviate distressful feelings, such as, sadness, pain, depression, anger, boredom and even happy feelings. In an eating event, a lot of calories can be consumed–above and beyond what is considered to be healthful–in a short amount of time.

For me, my binge eating was triggered by restrictive eating (READ: DIETING) and that need to diet was due to self-esteem and body image beliefs. I would “successfully” restrict foods and lose weight for various lengths of time, only to binge eat, also for various amounts of time, only to regain all lost weight and then some. This yo-yo diet cycle last for YEARS.

Emotional or binge eating is much different than eating to satisfy real hunger, and either can be a culprit in undesired weight gain, other health complications, and emotional and psychological distress due to the guilt and shame that it can induce in those who engage in it.

Typically, the emotional or binge eater will choose unhealthy foods, like, ice cream, cookies and other sweets because it is the fat and sugar in them that brings a feeling of contentment and euphoria as they induce reward centers in the brain to release “feel good” chemicals, such as, the body’s natural pain killers, opioids.

Emotional or binge eating can be severe or an occasional occurrence, but for most it becomes a habit, and something that unfortunately they are not even aware exists in their own lives. Old habits die hard as the saying goes, and those who are unaware automatically reach for chips and ice cream when they are distressed or bored.

I experienced this blindness to my own patterns and behaviors until I worked with a coach. It is amazing how easy and completely we can sometimes be unaware of our habits. The brain is really efficient at executing patterns on auto-pilot and I always recommend journaling or tracking as a tool or practice to help you spot patterns yourself.

In order to break free from the cycle of emotional or binge eating, it is crucial to understand how it differs from real physical hunger. This can be trickier than it sounds, because dysfunctional eaters have spent months or years perfecting the craft of using food to deal with feelings, and are typically completely out of touch with their body’s actual need for food or what that feels like.

Since emotional hunger is a powerful thing, it is important to assess the signs and take a deep look at your own behavior should you be looking to stop the cycle of emotional eating and binge eating. Not to be cliche, but knowing really is half the battle in developing health habits, and no other habit has the impact that eating does on your overall wellness!

Emotional Versus Physical Hunger

The biggest area of concern is eating when your body is not really hungry. A shift in my mindset was considering the follwoing analogy: do you fill your gas tank up when it is empty (or even a little low) or when it is full? When you do, do pump until the gas is spilling out o987Our bodies are vessels and food is fuel. Eating when you need to is a key practice in getting a handle on your relationship with food and your body.

Emotional Hunger Is Sudden

Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, like an unexpected rain storm on a warm summer day. It is typically an urgent need for food, and it feels overwhelming. Conversely, physical hunger is not that urgent, it is more gradual and also expected, as it comes in anticipated intervals, such as, meal times.


As opposed to physical hunger where a sensible meal will satisfy, including healthy selections like fruits and vegetables, in emotional hunger one has out of control cravings for foods that are high in fat and sugar. The craving is an urgent need, and sometimes feels like it’s something one can’t live without, and only that specific food which is being craved will satisfy.

Guilt And Shame

No one ever feels guilty about eating lunch or breakfast, its sustenance, it’s what humans are supposed to do. But emotional hunger is often marked by feelings of guilt, shame and regret after binge eating because deep down the eater knows that this food was eaten dysfunctional reasons.

Mindless Eating

Unlike with physical hunger where one sits down to enjoy a meal and savors every bite, emotional hunger is often characterized by mindless eating. Without awareness one can finish a tub of ice cream or a box of cookies without truly realizing how much they have eaten.

Unlike physical hunger, where one stops eating once they are full, emotional hunger is never satisfied. The emotional eater will keep eating and wanting more and more food until they are so stuffed that they feel sick.

Emotional Hunger Is in the Heart

As opposed to physical hunger that is felt in the stomach when there is an absence of food or it is meal time, emotional hunger is in in the mind, and includes imagining the smell, taste and texture of certain foods being craved.

Final Thoughts

As you can see there is a profound difference between these two types of hunger.

Can you identify any of these in your own eating habits?

For many emotional or binge eating is a habit that encompasses a large part of their life. It is not healthy, not for the body, or the emotional state of one who has fallen victim to this type of dysfunctional behavior.

Help is available.

The key is to identify and become aware of the problem and your own patterns in this regard, and then learn proper coping mechanisms that will eliminate the need to use food for emotional satisfaction.

Stay tuned as I next explore additional types of hunger and how to build new habits that resolve and soothe the hungers in a healthful way.

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