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How to Identify Physical Vs. Emotional Hunger

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

For years, I struggled with a binge eating disorder. Emotional eating was my way of using food to cope with how I was feeling as a new trucker wife who was not coping well and mom shaming for my choice to put my four kids' well-being first by staying home with them while I was also attending college. For some reason a lot of people had a lot of thoughts about me not working and as they say always pregnant. This rejection weighs down on my soul. When I did not know what else to do, I knew that I could eat. A lot of the women were my husband's family so to keep peace in my marriage which was becoming distant every day literally due to him being an over-the-road truck driver I kept quiet. I found myself doing something I never did, and people were pleased to feel their approval and acceptance. During this dark period of my life, if I was faced with a situation that I did not know how to deal with, it was easier to eat than to figure out how to deal with the issue. At the time I didn’t know I struggled with childhood emotional neglect and abandonment issues. But after struggling with panic attacks every time my husband would leave to go over the road I would go to the ER and after the fifth time the physician on duty asked me about my childhood and present situation and she put two and two together and told me the separation anxiety that was causing my panic attacks was due to a childhood wound of abandonment. Later, I learned about my emotional neglect issues. You can read my full story in book one of the LonerWife Diaries series. But what you need to know is that during my quarter-life crisis, I was struggling badly to live my life and I felt hopeless. This low vibration caused me to eat….and eat…and eat…mostly on sugary foods until I just felt disgusted and guilty. It was a painful habit I developed. But I had no clue how to deal with the difficult emotions I was feeling so I did what I was taught to do as a child suppressed how I felt and ignored the pain.

You are Not Alone…

Many people are like me they go years struggling in silence and no one even knows that they struggle with a disorder. I didn’t tell my family, my mom, or my husband about my struggle. As a trucker wife living in Atlanta four hours away from all my family, it was easy to hide. But the weight I gained was not. I had older family members that don’t know any better about body shaming and pointed out that I was getting fat. With no consideration of how their comments made me feel. Nor did they understand that I was actually struggling with a food addiction, particularly sugar. They just spoke their mean without any consideration of my feelings. To be honest I don’t think even if they did know I had a disorder their comments would change. They simply spoke body shaming like it was cool. Just like the working moms rejected me and spoke degraded things about staying at home all doing nothing. Even though I was going to college, something none of them ever did. I share this story with you today so you are not afraid to talk about the things you struggled with.

I know emotional eating can happen for several reasons, but if you are anything like I was, emotional eating is your way of coping with rejection, long-distance marriage issues, sadness, and stress. I want you to know that you are not alone! You are not a lost cause! You will not deal with this all of your life! You can overcome it, and I am proof that it is possible! I’ve been in full remission since 2015.

The key thing that helped me get through emotional eating was being mindful of what it felt like for me when I was hungry and when it was just emotional stress and hunger craving sugar to feel better.

The thing is daily stressors often cause people to seek comfort or distraction in food, which is a common coping mechanism for dealing with strong feelings or emotions. According to an American Psychological Association survey, about one-fourth of Americans rate their stress level as 8 or higher on a 10-point scale, so it’s not surprising that many of us turn to food to help ourselves cope with difficult emotions.

Numerous studies have shown that physical or emotional distress increases the tendency for people to choose foods high in fat, sugar, or both. Once ingested, these foods seem to have a positive effect on mood, counteracting or reducing stress-related emotions and responses. The emotional calming effect further promotes cravings for these “comfort foods”, perpetuating the cycle, which oftentimes leads to guilt and shame associated with eating unhealthy foods.

In addition to being linked to weight gain, emotional or stress eating can lead to disordered eating habits, poor self-esteem, and worsened mental or physical health.

But once I became mindful of the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger. I realized that food was never going to solve my problems. After each of my emotional eating episodes, whatever issue I was facing was still there I couldn’t run away from it. I couldn’t run away from how I felt. All I did was suppress it for a moment. All emotional eating did was continue to keep my self-esteem low. I had to learn that these habits were unhealthy and did not serve my highest good. All it was doing was hurting me. Not helping me.

Therefore, I grabbed my shadow work journal and started journaling how I felt. I also kept a tracker that allowed me to record when I was triggered, stressed, the location, who was there, and what was said or done so that I know what made me escape with food.

However, mindful eating encourages a sense of awareness of my eating habits, which is crucial to changing problematic eating habits. Every time we ask the question “Is this a physical or emotional hunger that I’m feeling right now?” we become more self-aware of our hunger cues and triggers. While there is no right or wrong answer on how to label your type of hunger, having that awareness is a powerful step for change. Here’s the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger.

Physical hunger:

· Usually builds gradually

· Occurs several hours after a meal

· Often goes away when full

· Leads to a feeling of satisfaction after eating.

· Often felt as hunger pangs or a growling stomach, irritability, low energy, and difficulty concentrating

· Associated with physical needs such as low blood sugar levels

Emotional hunger:

· Usually develops suddenly

· Unrelated to time

· Persists despite feeling full

· Associated with feelings of guilt and shame after eating

· Usually associated with boredom, stress, sadness, or loneliness

· Unrelated to physical needs (like low blood sugar levels)

The purpose of mindful eating is not to lose weight, although it is highly likely that those who adopt this style of eating will lose weight. The intention is to help you savor the moment and the food and encourage mindful eating habits. When adopting this approach, people often eat less, better enjoy the ritual of eating, and select foods that are better aligned with their health goals.

The thing is like me, you may not make the connection between eating and your feelings until you are faced with a food addiction. However, understanding your hunger cues can help you change them. Reflect on your thoughts and feelings in a shadow work journal is very helpful. Eat more slowly and listen to your body. Avoid eating while doing other things—focus on the food and enjoy each mouthful so you can understand when you have had enough.

Stop trying to fill the

Emptiness inside you

With food.


Harvard Health Publishing (2021) “Why stress causes people to overeat”

Diabetes spectrum: a publication of the American Diabetes Association (2017) “Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence while you eat”


Help Developing A Plan For Self-Care

Do you want help developing a self-care plan that works for your own busy schedule? Do you want accountability in implementing a self-care plan? If you or someone you love is struggling to maintain optimal mental and emotional health, consider reaching out to Spiced Life Conversation Art Wellness Studio and Botanica. We are a Metro Atlanta, Conyers Georgia area. We are a coaching and counseling practice with empathetic, skilled counselors and recovery coaches who can help you set goals, develop a self-care routine, and move forward to build a more fulfilling life. Our team would be happy to work with you either just for a couple of sessions to develop and implement a Self-care plan or longer term to work toward overall better mental health within our membership site or other programs.

Dr. Nikki LeToya White

About The Author:

Dr. Nikki LeToya White MSEd-TL, Ph.D. RHN is the founder, director, and full-time board-certified trauma-informed nutritionist, folk herbalist, and wellness consultant at Spiced Life Conversation Art Wellness Studio and Botanica. She created Spiced Life Conversation, LLC

Art Wellness Studio and Botanica provide the Metro Atlanta area with counseling and coaching services where clients are carefully matched with the right program for healing abandonment and childhood emotional neglect trauma that cause codependency, emotional eating, financial stress, and imposter syndrome as it relates to fear of success and being abandon. We help you begin your emotional healing journey with ease. Recently, we have expanded to include an online membership site so we now provide support to people living all over the world. All of our recovery coaches provide at least one evidence-based treatment to assist in your recovery. Dr. White is a big proponent of self-care and helping people live a fulfilling life! She has been in full remission with both codependency and emotional binge eating disorder since 2016. In living a life in recovery from sugar addiction. Loving her low-sugar balance lifestyle.

Warm Regards

Dr. Nikki LeToya White


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