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Physical vs. Emotional Hunger: Understanding the Difference

By New Jersey Bariatric Center Staff | August 13, 2018


Hunger- It’s something we feel every day, but how much do we know about hunger, the different types and ways to tackle it? At our support group meeting NJBC dietitians discussed ways to identify physical hunger versus emotional hunger, what triggers hunger and strategies to tell the difference between the two.



Imagine that you’re outside doing yardwork all morning into the afternoon.  You suddenly realize that you haven’t eaten in over four hours so you head inside to make a healthy lunch. You feel satisfied after eating and head back outside to finish gardening.

This is an example of eating as a result of physical hunger.  As you were gardening, you started feeling hungry because you haven’t eaten in a few hours.  You ate your lunch, felt satisfied, and went on with your yardwork.

Now, imagine you just ate dinner after a long, stressful day at work.  You’re on the couch watching TV and want some ice cream so you get a bowl.  You finish it and soon enough go back for more.  Next, you grab a handful of chips and the night continues with mindless snacking.  You later think to yourself, “Why did I eat that? I wasn’t hungry, I just had dinner.”  Now, the guilt kicks in.

This scenario is an example of eating secondary to stress.  You just ate dinner but craved other foods when you weren’t hungry because of the stress you felt.  After, the stress was not resolved and instead you experienced guilt.

Below is a chart from an article titled “Transforming Thoughts to Escape Emotional Eating After Weight Loss Surgery” by psychologist Jennifer Duncan that clearly compares physical and emotional hunger to each other:


So how can we help ourselves recognize emotional hunger versus physical hunger?   Before you head to the kitchen feeling hungry, stop and use the HALT Method used by psychologists to help people control their impulses. Next time you feel hunger, you should ask yourself am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?  The quicker you are at identifying the type of hunger you are experiencing, the more you’ll be able to identify coping strategies to deal with what you’re feeling.

Participants at our support group all agreed that bariatric surgery is a great tool to help with weight loss, however, it does take motivation and dedication to reach and maintain a goal.  Strategies our support group participants shared for tackling hunger in more positive way include:

  • Plan your meals and put specified times aside for meals like breakfast, lunch and dinner.
  • Consult with a psychologist or one of the dietitians at New Jersey Bariatric Center regularly to deal with emotional eating and understand your triggers.
  • Go for a walk around your neighborhood or engage in another activity to keep busy when you have the urge to snack but are not physically hungry.

Here at New Jersey Bariatric Center, we’re here to support you throughout every aspect of your weight loss journey and provide you with the tools you need to combat emotional hunger and be more in tune with your body.  We have virtual Tuesday Talks support group meetings every 4th Tuesday of the month for post-op patients only. For more information or to sign up email



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