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How to Tell the Difference Between Emotional and Physiological Hunger

August 20, 2019

Do you ever open the refrigerator door and stand there looking for something to eat? And then suddenly you wonder if you’re hungry? Before we make decisions about if and what to eat, it’s important to understand why we are eating.

By Akemi Huynh, Student of Nutritional Sciences at North Carolina Central University

Why do we eat? 

The answer to this seemingly simple question is rather complex because this decision is influenced by hunger and appetite. We need to learn about what influences the desire to eat, how to distinguish between different types of hunger, increase mind-body awareness, and know our options when experiencing emotional hunger.

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What’s the difference between hunger and appetite? 

Hunger is the physiological, or physical, urge to consume food. Hunger is regulated by our body’s internal network of hormones, organs, and body systems. Appetite is the psychological, or non-physical, urge to consume food. Appetite is influenced by several factors such as preferences, culture, food marketing, psychological state, social conditions, food cost and availability, and environmental cues.

What are the differences between physical and non-physical hunger? 

Physical hunger develops gradually over some time. It often occurs several hours after a meal and is accompanied by physical symptoms such as hunger pangs, stomach noises, decrease in energy, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, lightheadedness, headache, shakiness, irritability, and even nausea. With physical hunger, one experiences satisfaction after eating and this hunger disappears after reaching satiety. Non-physical hunger tends to have a quick onset and is unrelated to the timing of the most recent meal, and can persist despite a person reaching physical satiety. After eating to fulfill non-physical hunger, one often experiences negative feelings such as guilt and shame. 2

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How do I tell if I am experiencing physical or non-physical hunger? 

Michelle May, M.D. explains that humans are born knowing when and how much to eat but that they lose our awareness of these cues.3

To help re-develop a practice of checking in with the body, ask yourself these questions:

Am I hungry? 

Dr. May likens the decision to eat to filling up your car’s gas tank. Every time you drive past a gas station, you could fill up but you would probably check your gas gauge first to determine if you need to. 

Does it make sense for me to be hungry right now? 

Based on your last meal’s timing, nutritional balance, and caloric intake as well as recent physical activity, determine the likelihood that your body needs energy input. 

Have I completed a body-mind-heart scan?

This scan involves a purposeful and concentrated scan of your body’s conditions and sensations to check for signs of physical hunger. 

Why are hunger cues important? 

Using hunger cues to inform eating decisions increases the likelihood of making healthier food choices, reducing overconsumption, and increasing meal satisfaction. In a randomized clinical trial of individuals with obesity, participants in the treatment group implemented mindful eating practices to increase awareness and management of physical hunger, fullness, satisfaction, cravings, emotions, and triggers.4 Compared to the control group, individuals in the treatment group had a significantly lower fasting glucose, maintained a reduction in consumption of sweets, and were more successful in maintaining weight loss more than six months after the conclusion of the study. 

What do I do if I am not physically hungry? 

Dr. May lists three options for how to deal with non-physical hunger.5

Eat (without guilt).

You’ve assessed your body’s signs and made an intentional decision to eat, which means that guilt is not warranted. Remember that even though eating can result in temporary satisfaction, it can also result in physical discomfort and regret. 

Distract yourself.

If you can engage in an activity for 10 to 15 minutes, the urge to eat may pass. Moreover, each time you break the link between non-physical hunger and eating, you are strengthening new brain circuits and habits. When you wait to eat until there is a physical need, you’re more likely to enjoy the food. However, if you do not address the underlying urge for the non-physical hunger, the urge may resurface. Distracting activities include walking, talking on the phone or meditating, but may require some planning if you know you’ll be in public or atypical environments like an airplane or a conference. 

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Address the underlying reason for the non-physical hunger.

This is a worthwhile endeavor because it will produce the most sustainable success, however, it will require time, reflection, analysis, and perhaps professional help.

At the Duke Diet and Fitness Center, clients use a hunger scale as one tool to develop mindful eating practices.

Christine Tenekjian, RDN, at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center says, “The hunger scale is a way to measure how hungry or how full you are feeling. Our clients find it is easy to describe or imagine the extreme ends of the scale, like starving/ravenous as level 1 or bloated/stuffed as level 7. However, it is necessary to slow down and pay attention to detect the small differences between feeling neutral and moderately hungry or moderately full/satisfied.” 

For more information about mindful eating and to schedule an appointment with a registered dietitian, nutritionist, or behavioral health expert visit www.dukedietandfitness.org  or call 1.800.235.3853


1 Byrd-Bredbenner, C., Moe, G., Berning, J., & Kelley, D. (2016). The science of nutrition. Wardlaw’s Perspectives in Nutrition (10th Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. 

2 Wansink, Brian. (2006). Mindless eating: Why we eat more than we think. New York: Bantam Books.

3 May, Michelle (n.d.). How Can You Tell if You’re Hungry? Retrieved from https://amihungry.com/how-can-you-tell-if-youre-hungry/

4 Daubenmier, J, Moran, P.J., Kristeller, J., Acree, M., Bacchetti, P., Kemeny, K.E.,…Hecht, F.M., (2016). Effects of a mindfulness-based weight loss intervention in adults with obesity. Obesity, 24(4), pp. 794-804. doi: 10.1002/oby.21396

5 May, Michelle (n.d.). A Taste of Am I Hungry? Retrieved from https://amihungry.com/taste-of-am-i-hungry-lesson3/

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