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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 Camille Noe Pagán
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD

sandwich on a plate

If you’re hungry, you’re hungry -- right?

Not always. When your stomach hurts or feels empty, the message is clear: You need to eat! But being bored, angry, stressed, or sad can make you want to eat, too. This isn’t real hunger. Instead, it’s called “emotional eating.”

Eating when you’re not actually hungry is OK once in a while. But you don’t want to open the fridge or cupboard to deal with your feelings. You may end up eating more than you need to. When you’re sad, mad, or really stressed, you might want to pick stuff that has a lot of fat and sugar. That kind of food won’t make your body feel good, especially if you eat it all the time.

Don’t stress. If you stop and think, you can figure out if your stomach or your emotions are what’s making you reach for a snack.

How to Figure Out If You’re Hungry

Real hunger is when your stomach feels empty or growly. You have less energy than normal, too. Or maybe you have a headache or can’t think well. These are signs your body needs more food.

Not sure if that’s what you’re feeling? Ask yourself how hungry you are. “Try using a scale of one to 10. One would be, ‘I’m so hungry I can’t think straight,’ and 10 would be, ‘I’m so full I feel like I just had Thanksgiving dinner,’” says Kristi King, MPH, a dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. If you’re somewhere between 5 and 10 and it’s not time for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, wait until you’re hungrier to eat.

Other clues that you’re not really hungry:

  • You feel like you want to eat all of a sudden. Real hunger usually builds up a little at a time. But feeling the need to eat RIGHT NOW usually happens because of feelings like anger and boredom.
  • You have just one type of food on your mind, like mac 'n' cheese, potato chips, or chocolate. If you’re really hungry, any healthy meal or snack will hit the spot, King says. Otherwise, you might be trying to boost your mood with food.
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