Emotional Hunger: What Is It and How to Tell If You’re Really HungryBy Elisa Hoffman Reviewed by Briana Rodriquez, R.D. Science-Backed
Updated: November 18, 2019
If you struggle with emotional hunger — eating because you feel a certain way (like bored, stressed or angry) rather than eating to fulfill physical hunger — you’re not alone. A recent survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed that just over a third of Americans reported eating unhealthy foods or eating too much when they’re stressed.1 But fear not: There are ways to avoid emotional eating and start practicing healthier habits.
Find out what emotional hunger is and healthy ways that may help you manage your emotions instead of turning to food when you’re not truly hungry. Read on for some of our top tips!
What is emotional hunger?
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So, what exactly is emotional hunger? Emotional hunger is typically driven by emotions — not physical hunger. For many, food can often be a coping mechanism and a distraction during stressful situations. You may be feeling upset or sad and reach for food in an attempt to feel better. But eating usually doesn’t solve the problem — in fact, it might make you feel worse, especially if you overindulge in not-so-healthy options.
Emotional hunger is common — and it can happen any time (like eating too much cake at a friend’s birthday party or going overboard on the appetizers at an after-work event). Situations like these are a part of life, and almost everyone experiences them! However, if you frequently eat to cope with your emotions and it begins to affect your health — it can become problematic.
Although emotional hunger can be a difficult cycle to stop, it can be done. First, you’ll want to start by identifying if you’re actually hungry, or if that feeling is being motivated by something else.
Emotional hunger: Are you really hungry?
It’s happened to most of us: Whether it’s a bad break-up, a rapidly approaching deadline at work or just a bad day, you might find yourself feeling stressed. You eat a sweet treat to help calm your nerves — but you’re not even hungry. You think to yourself, “Why did I eat that?”
Don’t be too hard on yourself — emotional hunger is real. Here’s how to tell emotional hunger and physical hunger apart.
Physical hunger: According to the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD), physical hunger usually comes on slowly.2 The NCHPAD also reports that if you’re hungry, different kinds of foods will sound appealing. What’s more, you’re like to stop eating when you’re full — and feel content once you’ve finished.
Emotional hunger: On the flip side, the NCHPAD states that emotional hunger is typically associated with strong cravings for specific foods — it often comes on quickly rather than gradually. If you’re eating out of emotional hunger, you might eat past the point of feeling full and feel guilty after you’ve eaten.
How can I stop emotional eating?
While there isn’t one way to stop emotional eating, there are ways to help you identify whether your desire to eat is driven by emotion rather than hunger. We’ve rounded up six tips to help.
1. Be mindful
Take a moment to check-in with yourself. Identify if your stomach is growling or if you’re fueled by emotion. If you’re feeling upset, stressed, or the like, take a few deep breathes and try to relax. Check out these 7 other mindfulness tips.
2. Take a 20-minute break
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If you find yourself with a strong craving for high-fat or sweet foods, take a 20-minute break to distract yourself and see if your craving passes. Instead, do something that isn’t food-oriented. Take a short walk around your office building, call a friend or listen to a quick podcast to pass the time. After 20 minutes, check-in with yourself. Are you still hungry? If so, reach for a meal or snack with a healthy balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat that will satisfy you and keep you on track with your weight loss goals.
3. Remove temptations
If your pantry is stocked with chips, cookies and other decadent treats — it can be hard to resist a strong craving! Remove tempting foods from your home and swap them out for healthier alternatives such as apples, mixed nuts, sparkling water and gum. If you’re craving something sweet, opt for a piece of fruit! If you want something with a crunch, reach for those carrots.
4. Stick to a plan
If you’re following a weight loss program like Jenny Craig, sticking to your meal plan is one way to potentially avoid emotional hunger. If you’re not following a meal plan or are too busy to eat and end up skipping a meal, you might become “hangry,” which may cause you to crave high-calorie, decadent foods.
Pro Tip: Outline your meal plan for the week (Jenny Craig offers a range of meal plans designed to fit your lifestyle) and try to stick to it as closely as possible. If you find yourself hungry in between meals, try keeping some healthy snacks on hand, so you’re less inclined to reach for unhealthy “junk” foods. Ideas include a ½ cup of berries, raw veggies with a tablespoon of hummus or a small amount of unsalted almonds.
5. Get active
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Whatever emotions you are feeling, channel that energy into physical activity! Exercise is a positive outlet to use when you are feeling overwhelmed or restless. Not only can exercise support your weight loss journey, but it’s also a great way to reduce stress and anxiety. Most people know that moving more is good for your heart — but not everyone knows it’s also great for your mood. According to the APA, 62% of adults who exercise or walk to manage their stress say these techniques are extremely effective.3 Plus, research suggests going for a brisk 15-minute walk could help curb cravings for a sugary snack.4 The next time you are faced with a difficult situation, going for a walk could be a healthy way to work through stress without reaching for unhealthy foods.
6. Be forgiving
If you end up reaching for that box of cookies, don’t be too hard on yourself. Even if you indulge in emotional eating — wake up and start fresh the next day! Learning from your experiences and having a positive attitude can help you develop healthier habits. By recognizing your behaviors and making an effort to change, you can be on your way to achieving your long-term health and weight loss goals.
Want some other ideas to stop emotional hunger in its tracks? Try one of these activities:
If you feel tired or restless:
- Take a nap
- Enjoy a bubble bath
If you feel frustrated or misunderstood:
- Call a friend
- Write in your journal or write a letter
- Meditate or take a few deep breaths
If you feel sad, discouraged or lonely:
- Meet a friend for coffee
- Join a community group
- Listen to some upbeat music
- Go for a walk
If you feel bored, angry or anxious:
- Get some fresh air
- Dance to your favorite tunes
- Connect with a close family member
- Work on a hobby or craft
Emotional eating is often a short-term solution to feeling stressed, overworked or overwhelmed. Putting healthy eating strategies in place, like following a balanced meal plan or practicing mindfulness techniques are effective ways to help you stay on track. And if weight loss is your goal, we’re here to help! Jenny Craig’s easy-to-follow, delicious meal plans are designed to fit your lifestyle, without the added stress of grocery shopping, prep work or cooking. Paired with a dedicated weight loss consultant, you’ll have powerful support throughout your weight loss journey.
Get started by choosing your menu today!
Elisa is a content marketing manager for Jenny Craig with over ten years of experience working in the health and fitness industry. She loves sharing her passion for living a balanced and healthy lifestyle. A San Diego native and an endurance sports enthusiast, you can usually find her swimming, biking along the coast highway or running by the beach in her free time. Elisa holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from California State University, Chico.
Favorite healthy snack: mozzarella string cheese with a Pink Lady apple
Reviewed by Briana Rodriquez, RDN
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
This article contains trusted sources including a scientific, peer-reviewed paper. All references are hyperlinked at the end of the article to take readers directly to the source.