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How to Identify Emotional Hunger vs. Real Hunger + My Conscious Eating Guidelines

by Marissa on March 20, 2012

Whenever I’m hungry I play a little game with myself.

Instead of satisfying the “hunger” immediately, I check in with my body first. I’ll get to exactly how this works in a second … and, I know, it sounds weird.

But when you consider that hunger is actually controlled not only by the gastrointestinal tract (the stomach) but also by the hypothalamus (the brain), it starts to make more sense.

Early in my corporate career, I felt a tinge that I was put here in this world to make a difference. How? I had no idea . I was still enjoying my 9-to-5 so I didn’t give it much thought.

Fast forward five years, I started to have insatiable “hunger”.  “I am always hungry,” I would lament to my friends. I would snack for what felt like all day long everyday on almonds, oatmeal, yogurt, cheese and crackers, you-name-it.

To no avail. The hunger remained. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the “hunger” I was feeling, wasn’t really hunger.

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It was boredom, dissatisfaction and emptiness disguised as hunger.

And I was looking to food to fill those voids that could only really be filled by looking inside and getting honest with myself about what I really needed and wanted for my life.

So that’s it on a bigger scale, but this happens on a smaller scale in day to day life. Stressed and on a deadline? Do you find you munch on chips? Annoyed with your boyfriend? Nothing a few happy hour snacks can’t cure. And so it goes …

I am so much better about this now but old habits die hard and I always have to check myself. The table on the right is a nice comparison of physical hunger and emotional hunger.

In which column do you tend to hang out?

Now that I’ve found my way, that insatiable “hunger” has subsided and I feel fuller than ever with passion for what I do and love in my life.

But there is still always that tendency to reach for the dark chocolate on those days when I’m feeling disappointed, tired or uninspired.

When this happens, here’s what to do:

Marissa’s Conscious Eating Guidelines

1. Stop and breathe

2. Before you reach for the snack, ask, “am I really hungry or am I bored, tired, sad, lonely, happy, some other emotion?”

3. Identify where you’re feeling the hunger (stomach, head, heart, chest, mouth.) Hint: if the hunger isn’t in your stomach, it’s likely another emotion driving feelings of hunger

4. Answer the question, “if I couldn’t have food right now, what else would I need?” A nap? A hug? A manicure? A good cry? Ok, go get it! If you can’t take a nap or cry at the moment, take a 5 minute walk, or make a note to go to sleep earlier or phone your mom or a good friend later on and let it all out.

5. Drink an 8 ounce glass of water and wait 30 minutes.

6. If the desire to eat goes away, you were likely experiencing emotional hunger. If the desire to eat intensifies or you want to eat foods that are normally unappealing to you, you’re hungry. Go eat already!

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Maybe your issue is eating too much at meal time or eating to the point of feeling bloated and over full. I’ve been there too and it’s all related to — you guessed it — those emotional triggers.

The hunger fullness scale to the left is a great way to help gauge hunger levels. The best time to eat is at level 3 or 4 and you’ll feel best to stop eating at level 6 or 7. Slow down when you eat, tune in when you eat and find where those edges are for you.

It takes practice but the more mindful you are, the more your body will thank you.

Imagine leaving your home or restaurant after a meal feeling like your spunky, sexy self with enough energy to go dancing!

I know this is a personal topic, but if you’re inspired to share (and I hope you are), tell me what emotions or situations trigger hunger for you?


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Anger, boredom, resentment, stress.


Great info! The emotion that makes me want to eat is anger!

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