Eating Well: Understanding Physical and Emotional Hunger

Without question, our culture has undermined rational approaches to eating. Conflicting messages about body image and healthy lifestyles lessen the ability of many of us to make rational food choices. Eating is both a normal and necessary function, and the impact of our very understandable confusion has resulted in an international health crisis. It’s critical that we understand that eating is not only a physical requirement but also an emotional necessity.

While eating is a source of fuel for the body, there is no escaping that it is also a source of deep satisfaction and pleasure. This is a function of the brain’s reward system. In basic terms, eating is tied to a pleasure-related neurotransmitter, dopamine (among others), which evokes a sense of wellness, if not satisfaction. For modern people, this sense of fulfillment often supplies a critical source of meaning and calmness in an unpredictable, chronically stressful world.
Financial pressure, as well as family, relationship, and occupational challenges, are common sources of daily stress. It’s not surprising that foods, which are in essence, drugs, have become a way to self-medicate the pain of this stress. Unsurprisingly, the impact of doing so has resulted in epidemic levels of dietary-induced illness, including serious eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and obesity. Most of us have tried dieting or changing eating habits to manage weight, often with poor or unsustainable outcomes.

Paradoxically, research indicates that chronic dieters and/or those who attempt to restrict their intake are also more prone to engage in unhealthy, emotional-based eating. This can happen in the following ways:
  • Unscheduled meals/heavy snacking/absent-minded eating
  • Eating in isolation
  • Eating to avoid unpleasant feelings
  • Intense craving for specific foods      
  • Obsessing about foods that are high in calories and/or carbohydrates
  • Feelings of shame or guilt when eating foods not low in calories


Emotion-Based Versus Physical-Based Hunger

How do we know if we are eating based on physical versus emotional needs? Physical hunger usually develops over time, while emotion-based eating has more of a sudden onset. Satisfying physical hunger results in longer periods of both physical and mental satisfaction. Emotional eating, conversely, is short-lived and most often prompts more eating to ease stress (anxiety) in a cyclic fashion. What is often misunderstood is that we cannot escape anxiety, stress, or, to some extent, disappointment and sadness. They are lifetime constants that require daily management. Unfortunately, unpleasant emotions can drive us to lose rational thinking skills around certain foods and to seek food as comfort. It’s imperative to understand that the brain is, in many ways, a selfish organ, but it can be disciplined.

The following thinking (cognitive) changes can help:
  • Be mindful of stress and anxiety levels.
  • Understand that finding healthy distractions (other than eating) is an effective means of managing emotional-based hunger.
  • Understand that everyone is prone to mistakes but can opt to return to healthier choices and patterns.
  • Remain clear that filling the body with food often does not fill the brain with satisfaction.
  • Consider getting medical help. Engagement in psychotherapy, medication, and vetted weight management programs continue to demonstrate outstanding outcomes in this area. 
Unfortunately, eating confusion will be a part of the cultural landscape for some time., Still, remain aware that basic approaches to adequate nutrition haven’t varied. Be cognizant that media both sensationalizes and exaggerates nutritional data. It’s not enough to rely on information in news feeds and social media outlets. This information is typically highly condensed and omits key factors, which often don’t align with overall scientific findings. Other times they’re simply incorrect.

However, there are preferable sources of easily readable, more reliable nutrition and weight loss guidance offered through Harvard Health, Johns Hopkins Medicine, and Mayo Health. Consultation with a registered dietitian (RD) or reading thoroughly cited research may also be helpful. 

Cultural ideas and trends may shift, but ultimately, comprehensive, nutritionally-based eating in concert with a program of regular physical activity at every age will always remain sound choices.

William-Charmak_12_.jpgWilliam Charmak, PhD, ABPP practices at Foundation Counseling and Wellness.



Patel, R. (2012). Stuffed and starved: The hidden battle for the world food system. Melville House Pub.
Craighead, L. W. (2005). The appetite awareness workbook: How to listen to your body and overcome binging, overeating, and obsession with food. New Harbinger Publications.

Posted: 1/17/2024 by William Charmak, PhD, ABPP