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Types of hunger: what they are and how to use them

Ever wonder how to control cravings? Or why you keep eating? Or how to tell your emotional hunger from other types of hunger? Or how people can follow intuitive eating because when you allow yourself to eat anything, you just eat everything?

Often when my clients tried intuitive eating before working together, they didn’t get awareness of their different types of hunger. They felt overwhelmed by the freedom of intuitive eating and didn’t have the tools to learn it as a skill. 

Because that’s what intuitive eating is–it’s a skill that isn’t intuitive in the beginning. 

As an intuitive eating coach, I always teach my clients about the different types of hunger to give some structure to this rule-free approach. 

What are the different types of hunger?

You may hear people talk about lots of different types of hunger. But there are 3 main types of hunger that we’re going to focus on. 

These are the 3 types of hunger that come from mental or physical cues that I teach my intuitive eating coaching clients to keep things simple. 

Physical hunger

Physical hunger refers to the needs of your body for nutrients. Yes, it’s pretty simple. Still, the signs of physical hunger can be more subtle than you realize. 

When most people start paying attention to their hunger signals, they usually think of the more obvious physical signs, like a growling stomach. But usually, a growling stomach is a later sign of hunger. 

Signs of hunger vary from person to person. Still, some common early signs of hunger include things like:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty remembering words
  • Irritability
  • Anxious feelings
  • Low energy

Want to learn more about the signs of hunger? Check out my blog Hunger Fullness Scale: What it is and how to use it.

Taste hunger

Taste hunger, sometimes called satisfaction, refers to a simple craving just because it will taste good. 

This is when you reach the point of feeling content and satisfied with your meal, like eating a good meal or a piece of dessert. Taste hunger is pretty simple, but it can feel difficult when first making the switch from diet culture to intuitive eating.

Emotional hunger

Your mental or emotional hunger refers to cravings driven by a desire for comfort and avoiding emotions. This could be stress eating, mindless snacking, boredom eating, and any other type of emotional eating.

Emotional hunger often feels like a bottomless pit, so even when you’re not hungry, you feel a strong desire to keep eating. 

Note, that the goal of intuitive eating isn’t to only eat when hungry. It’s just to evaluate what you want from a physical and mental perspective to take exquisite care of yourself. 

So, I’m talking about the times when you keep eating and it leaves you feeling bloating, and uncomfortable. Those are the times we can learn to limit by learning our different types of hunger if you want to. 

Emotional hunger vs physical hunger

A simple way to think about it is that physical hunger starts as a signal by the body from more food. While emotional hunger starts from our thoughts and feelings that signal a craving as a way to cope with the emotion. 

It can be tricky to tell the difference sometimes. I’ll share an example from when I first started learning intuitive eating. 

It would be a time when I would normally eat before, and I’d realize I hadn’t been hungry in a while. Within minutes I would feel hungry. Sometimes when this happened, it was physical hunger starting, but other times it was my unease with the changes that led to the craving. 

So how did I start to learn the difference? I just stayed willing to explore and be curious in the beginning. You just start building awareness. 

You can eat during these times and see how things change with how you feel physically and emotionally. The more you practice and play, the more you learn the difference.

So often, you’re taught not to trust yourself, or you’ll lose control. But it takes rebuilding trust and playing with breaking food rules to get to true freedom around food.   

The difference between emotional hunger and eating for satisfaction

It’s pretty simple to tell the difference between emotional hunger and satisfaction. 

When you have a taste craving, it’s easily satisfied after eating the food you’re craving. But emotional hunger feels like a bottomless pit where you just want to keep snacking. 

This could be a desire to relax after a stressful day or just something to do when bored.

How to manage the different types of hunger

It’s very simple to manage physical and taste hunger. Just eat the food. 

When you resist and restrict, it just leads to overeating more often. 

Waiting until you’re extremely hungry for physical hunger leads to eating quickly and overdoing it before you realize how much you’ve had. 

Consistently restricting and avoiding the foods you’re craving or trying to have just one often leads to losing control around those foods. 

But this doesn’t mean every time you have a taste craving, you have to eat. 

I teach my clients to check in with themselves to see how they feel physically and emotionally. That way, they can make the choice if they want to honor the taste craving. 

Sometimes you’ll want to have it for satisfaction, but sometimes eating the food may make you feel bloated and uncomfortable.

This process leads to self-trust around food so that you can allow yourself to eat any food and still not overeat.

Managing the last type of hunger can be the trickiest because most people aren’t taught how to process their emotions. 

The first step for managing emotional hunger is to start building awareness of what emotions you have the desire to eat for. In the next section, we’ll go into a few ways you can start building awareness of the type of hunger you’re experiencing.

How to start learning your types of hunger

When you learn your hunger and fullness cues, you can easily make food choices that leave you feeling amazing physically and mentally. If it doesn’t feel easy in the beginning, that’s normal. 

Anything new we try usually feels a little awkward and uncertain in the beginning. 

That’s part of learning a new skill. Just like a toddler stumbling and falling down as they learn to walk. Each time they stumble and get back up, they get stronger and learn the skill more.

In the beginning, I recommend using a 3 step check in around meals to start gaining awareness of hunger and fullness cues. 

After years of dieting, restricting, and eating based on rules instead of hunger cues–it’s normal to not have a clear understanding of what they are. So, this exercise just helps us notice what’s going on in our bodies. 

Here are the 3 steps:

  1. Before you eat – Check in physically, emotionally, and mentally. What emotion are you experiencing? Is your stomach growling? Do you feel distracted, low energy, etc. What are you craving for taste?
  2. During the meal/snack – part way through eating check in again. How are things changing physically? Is the food satisfying? How is the taste changing as you eat? Are your emotions or mental energy changing?
  3. After the meal – the after the meal check in can be immediate and it can be 20-30 minutes after the meal. It can take time for our body to register the fullness and feel the effects of it, so it can be good to see how you’re feeling a little while after eating. Again, check in physically, emotionally, and mentally. How is your focus and mental energy after eating? Are you satisfied? How does your stomach feel? Have your emotions changed?

I know this can seem like a lot of steps and time to check in with all these different areas. But it’s not something you will have to do forever. 

After doing it for a while, you’ll gain more awareness and understanding of your body, so you know the answer to these questions without slowing down. 

In the end, it’ll just take a few seconds for you to know which type of hunger is driving you to eat, and you can make the choice about what will serve you most in that moment. 

Emotional eating isn’t bad

One last thing I want to talk about–emotional eating isn’t always bad.

I don’t want the takeaway of this blog to be that eating for some types of hunger is better than others. 

That’s not for me to say–or anyone else–when it comes to your choices to eat or not eat. All that matters is you like your reasons, and it feels right for you. 

Emotional eating gets a bad rap because it can lead to physical discomfort–like bloating or feeling nauseous–and diet culture will blame it for weight gain. 

But as we discussed above, emotional eating helps us feel better by helping us manage an uncomfortable emotion. So, while we learn to grow our capacity to just feel and process emotions, you may choose this as one way to cope sometimes.

That choice and permission to eat emotionally are so important because it keeps you from feeling out of control. 

What I’ve seen is that it can be a problem when clients believe emotional eating is bad. They treat emotional eating like a food rule that just leads to resisting eating until they give in and it feels out of control. 

Giving yourself permission to use that tool allows space for you to consider and explore if it’s the best option for you at that moment. 

Final thoughts

Understanding these 3 types of hunger–physical, taste, and emotional–will help you start growing as an intuitive eater to grow your self-trust around food. 

Most plans only teach you about the actions of eating and not eating. But they don’t help you grow awareness of WHY you are taking those actions. 

That’s why growing your awareness is so important. It’s not about what actions you’re taking, but why you’re taking those actions. Because when you understand why, it’s much easier to change the actions if you want to. 

This is what my intuitive eating coaching program teaches my clients. They gain awareness and build trust in themselves, so they stop thinking about food all day, feel more comfortable in their body, and no longer feel fear or anxiety about food.

If that sounds like you, my coaching can help you. Sign up for a free consult call to get your questions answered and walk away understanding why you’re taking the actions you are.

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