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What's Your Mind Got to Do With Eating?

Are you really hungry? Feed your body, not your emotional hunger.
By Kerry Ludlam
WebMD Feature

Tween boy preparing sandwichIf you want to eat smart, deciding what to eat is only part of the answer. You also need to figure out when you're really hungry. But isn't that easy? If you're hungry, you're hungry, right? Not always!

Your brain can make understanding what you need very tricky! When you're feeling sad, stressed out, excited, or bored, you may try to fix those feelings with food. That can cause you to overeat. Plus, you probably have not fixed what's causing your mood or stress.

So before you eat a snack or a second helping, it's important to stop and think. Figure out if your stomach is really hungry. Or figure out if there's something else -- your mind or your heart -- that needs attention instead.

Physical hunger is when you're really hungry and your body needs energy. Sometimes you have "emotional hunger." That means you want to eat because of emotions like being bored or lonely. You try to make those feelings go away by eating.

It can be hard to tell the difference between physical and emotional hunger. Shelly Hoefs, a health behavior coach at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, S.D., says to think about why you want to eat. "You have to ask yourself if eating will really solve your problem -- or if what you really need might be a hug, some time to rest, or even a glass of water," she says. "If you're eating for any other reason than physical hunger, you need to rethink it."

Here are ways to figure out whether you need to feed your stomach or take care of another need.

How to Tell When You Are Physically Hungry

Physical hunger builds a little at a time. It gets bigger the longer it's been since you last ate. So you start off feeling a little bit hungry. Then you get a bit more hungry. Then you get really hungry! These are some other ways you might feel when you are physically hungry and need some food for energy. You may notice that you: 

  • Feel grumpy
  • Are tired
  • Get hunger pains -- your stomach growls
  • Can't think well or focus
  • Have a headache

Here's a really good way to test to see if you ate for physical hunger. See how you feel 20 to 30 minutes after you are done eating. Do you feel better? If so, you were probably really hungry. Don't feel better? Then maybe you ate for emotional reasons.

How to Tell When You Are Emotionally Hungry

Emotional hunger comes on fast. You want to eat now! You may feel desperate to get something to eat. There are more signs of emotional hunger. These are other ways you may feel.

  • You crave or want to eat something very specific.
  • You eat more than you normally would because you can't tell when to stop.
  • You feel guilty when you finish eating.
  • Eating didn't get rid of your bad mood. You have the same feelings even after you eat.