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Understanding Hunger to Prevent Overeating - by Catherine Lin RD

Oct 19, 2020

When you hear the word “Hunger”, what comes to mind? Possibly, the feelings of discomfort or fear or deprivation may come up.  For the most part, no one likes to feel hungry because its uncomfortable. And since it’s uncomfortable, it is often avoided.  But what if I told you that hunger is not always the enemy and that it’s actually an important player in the prevention of overeating.

To help deepen our understanding of hunger, let us first define hunger. According to the Oxford dictionary, hunger is “a feeling of discomfort or weakness caused by lack of food, coupled with the desire to eat.”

But here’s the tricky part – what is defined as a lack of food and what contributes to a desire to eat? I’m sure we’ve all had a desire to eat even though we physically are full. Sometimes our brain just offers food as the solution to a problem that goes beyond hunger.

Getting back to identifying your hunger signals can help you eat the amount your body needs without having to count calories. The problem is that many of us haven’t tuned into our bodies enough to know what true hunger feels like.

Studies have shown that learning how to identify hunger cues and eat in response to physical hunger can help regulate food intake, improve insulin sensitivity, and lead to weight loss1. Part of the reason is because when you are eating what your body needs, you end up naturally reducing your calorie intake. Some people may require more time and practice recognizing hunger cues especially if they have been ignoring their appetite cues for years. It’s possible that some people haven’t felt true hunger in a while. However, it is possible to get reacquainted with hunger again.

Before we discuss how, let’s first talk about the different types of hunger that exists. Hunger can be divided into three main categories: sensory hunger, emotional hunger, and physical hunger. When you first have the desire or intention to eat, ask yourself which type of hunger am I experiencing?

Let’s start off with the first type of hunger, Sensory Hunger. It’s essentially hunger that is triggered by our senses which can be further categorized into 5 types of hunger:

1.     Eye hunger: hunger triggered by food you see. For example, posts on Instagram, advertisements or seeing other people eating.

2.     Nose hunger: hunger triggered by smell. For example, the smell of freshly baked bread, popcorn at the theatre or brewed coffee in the morning.

3.     Mouth hunger: wanting to eat food for a specific flavour, texture, temperature etc. Cravings would fall under this category.

4.     Ear hunger: hunger triggered by the sound of people eating; someone opening a can of coke or a bag of chips; listening to people talk about food.

5.     Mind hunger: hunger triggered by thoughts, It’s all the mind chatter that happens around food, like what you should or shouldn’t eat.

Now let’s move on to the second type of hunger which is Emotional Hunger or heart hunger which occurs when the desire to eat is a response to fulfilling an emotional need.  This type of hunger is often triggered by emotions such as feeling upset, sad, tired, stressed, frustrated, restless or bored. It can also be due to positive emotions like feeling happy and eating to celebrate or as a reward. Studies have shown that stress leads to greater desire to eat high sugar and highly processed foods. This explains why we often turn towards certain comfort foods because they literally provide our body with comfort by counteracting this stress. Emotional hunger can appear suddenly and there is often a strong sense of urgency to eat immediately. Another sign of emotional hunger is the lack of control that is experienced with eating and a feeling of guilt that sometimes follows. Food is often used to avoid a difficult situation, thought or feeling.  Many of us have engaged in emotional eating one way or the other but we may not even realize we are doing so.

And then we have the third type of hunger which is Physical Hunger. Physical hunger stems from the body’s physical need for energy. Oftentimes you will feel it in your stomach- feeling empty, slight pain, growling. Typically, physical hunger gradually increases in intensity over time and usually occurs several hours after a meal. It usually can be satisfied with any type of food and tends to go away after eating. Physical hunger can also be a response to a medical need to eat like experiencing low blood sugars.

I won’t go into too much detail with the science of hunger but just understand that Physical hunger is driven by a series of signals between the body and brain. Certain foods can override normal satiety signals and cause the brain to want more food. This ultimately creates a perceived feeling of hunger. These foods tend to be foods that are high in sugar, fat, calories and are highly processed. Therefore, what you eat is important. There may be other biological reasons affecting the signalling of these appetite hormones which may be something to discuss with your doctor.

After learning about the different types of hunger that exists, you can then identify the specific type of hunger you are experiencing. This will then enable you to decide on the appropriate response to that hunger. It may be helpful to ask yourself questions like when was your last meal and what did you have? Where are you feeling the hunger? Are there other emotions you’re experiencing? Would having a salad satisfy this hunger or am I craving something else?

If you recognize that the signs you experience is due to emotional or sensory hunger, then acknowledge this perceived hunger and apply appropriate strategies to help overcome that urge to eat. In an earlier blog post, I shared 3 tips to overcome cravings so feel free to read that post if you haven’t already. If you feel that eating has become a way to avoid discomfort and provide temporary relief, it may be time to seek support so that you can you learn how to process your emotions. This requires you to explore with curiosity what the real problem is and most often the problem is not the food.  This process will take time and effort, but it is a crucial part to putting an end to overeating.

If you determine that it is physical hunger you’re experiencing, then the obvious response would be to eat. However, I also want to stress that it’s important to realize that some feeling of mild hunger is okay. Let go of the belief that hunger should always be avoided. Sometimes we develop a fear around hunger due to past experiences or the associations we have created with the experience of hunger. Think of hunger as a sign that you have not overeaten at your last meal and can act as a reminder of when your next meal should be. It can help with energy balance without counting calories.  The next time you experience hunger spend some time with that feeling and see if you can increase the time you delay eating (for example start with 5 minutes at a time and notice what happens and how you feel. This may not be suitable for everyone especially for those with diabetes needing to avoid low blood sugars so please practice with caution.

At every meal, the goal is to eat to the point of satiation which is when you feel satisfied and will not feel better if you continue to eat. Many of us have a hard time stopping at this point due to factors such as enjoying the taste of the food, eating too quickly or eating on autopilot due to distractions etc. This is why your eating environment is an important part in being able to engage in mindful eating, so you become more aware of your hunger and satiety cues. Examples of mindful eating strategies include eating slowly and eating away from distractions (like the tv or your phones). It takes practice to understand what comfortably full feels like and how to stop eating at this point.

It’s also important to recognize when you have past the point of feeling comfortably full or satisfied. Common signs that indicate you have overeaten include feeling uncomfortable, noticing more pressure in your abdomen and feeling the need to adjust your posture or loosen your pants. Eating past the point of satiation may lead to feelings of nausea, indigestion, heartburn, bloating and other health related concerns. It also is a sign that you have eaten more than your body needs which may contribute to weight gain in the long term.

As you learn to follow and trust your own hunger cues, you will be better able to prepare to eat in the presence of physical hunger and stop eating when feeling full and satisfied. I want you to imagine how empowering it would feel to finish a meal knowing that you followed your eating plan and had not overeaten.

Just to summarize, there are different types of hunger and it’s important to first identify which type of hunger you are experiencing. Check in often with yourself while you are eating to help you eat to the point of feeling satisfied. Remember that what you eat is important as well as it can affect your appetite and regulation of hunger. It may help to reduce your intake of refined carbs, sugar and flour due to their ability to drive hunger. To help promote satiety, ensure your meals are balanced, meaning they contain adequate protein, fibre and fats. Also begin to pay attention to the factors that contribute to sensory and emotional hunger you experience so that you can start changing your thoughts around food and take a more neutral approach where food is seen as a source of energy and fuel.  Always look at the next meal as an opportunity to practice mindful eating and feed your body in a way that serves you.


1.     Schaefer, J. T., & Magnuson, A. B. (2014). A review of interventions that promote eating by internal cues. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 114(5), 734-760.

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