Understanding WHY we Eat (The 3 types of Hunger)

WHY Do We Eat?

One of our readers reached out to us with this question for our Food and Mood series:

Why, when we feel like crap, do we want to eat crap?

Sound familiar?

Imagine this: You just arrived home after sitting in heavy traffic. At work, your colleague was laid off and their workload ended up on your plate- with no pay increase. Ugh. Talk about stress on stress on stress (-> feeling like CRAP). Conveniently, you walk through the garage door and right into the kitchen. Before you know it, you’re staring at the bottom of your ice cream pint.

We’ve all been there- the place where our emotions seem to take control and before long we’ve made an impulsive/reactive decision about food. These food decisions can happen even when we aren’t physically hungry. 


So…How can we distinguish between stomach-grumbling hunger and emotional hunger?

Physical/Stomach Hunger:

  • Develops slowly following a meal or snack
  • Desire a variety of foods 
  • Fullness sensation is the signal to stop eating
  • No negative feelings follow the eating occasion 

Emotional Hunger:

  • Develops suddenly, usually in the absence of physical hunger 
  • Desire/crave certain foods 
  • May result in bingeing a certain food, eating past or ignoring fullness cues 
  • Guilt, shame and other negative feelings follow the eating occasion 

As you can see, emotional eating can really affect our mood, especially when it is a REGULAR response to life stressors. When it becomes the NORM. (*Eating in response to emotions occasionally isn’t the concern here!) Further, feelings of guilt and shame that follow giving into cravings -> overeating can damage our relationship with food. 

Emotional Eating Tips: 

  1. Pay attention to HOW and WHEN your hunger develops. (i.e. Gradually with a stomach grumble, or suddenly?)
  2. Consider HOW do you feel after eating? (i.e. In addition to guilt or shame, you may feel physical sensations such as being stuffed or nauseous) 
  3. CONNECT with loved ones- call a friend, visit a neighbour. Sometimes the void that needs filling is better filled by a reflective conversation versus the fleeting pleasure of eating palatable food. 
  4. RE-FRAME your situation by flipping the negative self-talk. This may be done by journaling your experience, practicing gratitude, or going for a walk to physically remove yourself from the situation. 
  5. Work with a dietitian to create an action plan to improve your relationship with food.


But wait.. there is a third type of hunger.


Mouth Hunger (Think, CRAVINGS)!

Reflection: HAVE YOU EVER… 

Raided your cupboards after a meal looking for those salty, crunchy chips? You may not even be stomach-rumbling hungry, but your mouth and eyes are searching for that satisfying texture or flavour to polish off your craving!

Gone to the theatre after supper, only to make a beeline for that fro-yo bar or the popcorn line-up? Your belly is full after a satisfying meal, but the smell of buttery popcorn is luring you toward the concession stand. 

Sat at your desk mid-afternoon after a satisfying snack you prepared to curb that afternoon slump. You chose whole grain crackers, veggies and hummus but MAN you are STILL craving some chocolate or chips even though you packed a wholesome, balanced snack. 

The above scenarios depict how MOUTH hunger can surface, also known as cravings! Something we can all relate to, no doubt. There are SO many reasons why this type of hunger may come about. Of course, we suggest meeting with a dietitian to help you understand WHY these cravings come about for you and HOW to address them using an individualized plan. 


Mouth Hunger Tips:

  1. Avoid having large quantities/family or mega-size packages of hyper-palatable foods available (food environment makes a huge difference)
  2. Purchase single servings or small packages of your favourite fun foods to set a reasonable end point. Be mindful that these foods are designed and tested to have the perfect level of sweet and/or saltiness so we will have a difficult time stopping ourselves! Copy of PINTEREST-2
  3. Enjoy a small portion of fun food daily, whether with your meal or after. This is
    OPPOSITE to what diets recommend- they often label these foods as “bad” or “forbidden”. This may look like a piece of chocolate or small portion of bits n’ bites packed in a small container for lunch!
  4. Having healthy alternatives available or ready to be quickly prepped! Examples include veggie chips, energy bites, and healthier frozen treats (check out Angela Wallace, @eatright_rd ‘s recent PB&J frozen muffin cups)

Reflection: What are your go-to strategies for addressing cravings? 

Sources: Intuitive Eating Workbook, Alissa Rumsey, Rachael Hartley, Craving Change, Healthline

Article by: Sydney Withers RD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.