The 3 Types Of
Hunger + What To Do About Each
Hunger. That rumble in your belly, raw ache, and dip in
energy levels that reminds you it’s time to fuel up. Physiologically, hunger is an
important and protective mechanism, caused by a cascade of hormones that both
prepare the body for digestion and signal the brain to get you motivated to
seek food. Hunger can feel unpleasant precisely because it needs to be
But how often do you really feel hungry? Many diet
dictums tell us to “eat every three hours” and strong associations
that seem to originate in childhood align food with activities, rituals, and
even emotions. The physiological drive to eat, get hungry, and then eat again
is controlled by both the “hunger hormone”
ghrelin and the “satiety hormone”
leptin. But this simple cycle is complicated by our food associations. The key
to weight loss and management is returning to our basic need for food and
stripping away these unnecessary properties we often unconsciously attribute to
food. Think it sounds too simplistic? Ask yourself what stops you from losing
Cravings? These are
the body’s physiological response to unbalanced blood sugars. Blood sugar
stabilizes when we follow the body’s natural cues to eat or not to eat and
cravings are eliminated.
Temptation? Foods we
deem “bad” for us are often associated with particular times of the
day or activities. We can come to see these as rewards. What if you took that
power away from food and ate when you were hungry and stopped when you were
full? This new perspective might even mean a slice of birthday cake is part of
your healthy lifestyle.
Emotional eating? We tangle
food up with the many reasons we feel stressed out and overwhelmed. So what if
you found a new and more positive outlet for stress and overwhelm? What if you
dealt with the core issues cutting away at your quality of life and let food
simply be food again?
Hormones? A scale that
won’t budge can often be attributed to an imbalance in the body. Returning to
states of hunger can help to balance and reset hormones.
If these sound familiar, I hear you. Many of these
frustrating weight-loss obstacles are tied to different types of hunger and are
keeping you from your ideal weight. Here are three types of hunger that I’ve
identified, how to distinguish between them, and what to do about each:
1. Heart hunger.
Heart hunger–or emotional eating–is triggered by feelings
of overwhelm and exhaustion. Emotional eating is best understood as the attempt
to access positive feelings through eating. So ask yourself: Is this food I’m
about to eat a reward?
What to do instead: Acknowledge
times that you are eating to soothe or silence emotions and find positive
outlets instead. Exercise is a great way to increase feel-good hormones. If you
are deep into emotional eating, seek the help of a counselor so together you
can untangle this unhealthy association and deal with the real issues at the
heart of this pattern.
2. Head hunger.
This happens to the scheduled eater and the clock is the
trigger. Many of us have been taught to eat every three hours or to never skip
breakfast and this has stripped away our reliance on our body’s own natural
What to do instead: Start by
allowing yourself to experience the physiological symptoms of hunger. Delay
that morning snack until you feel the urge to eat. Focus on choosing hearty
meal options, like nutrient-dense foods high in protein and healthy fat, as
these foods allow many people to go without eating between meals. Let go of
diet “rules” and focus on what your body needs instead.
3. Habit hunger.
This is a kind of mindless eating where you have paired
food consumption with a particular activity for so long, it’s less a choice and
more a repeated action. Eating in front of the television is a classic example.
What to do instead: You can break
the association completely: Stop eating in front of the television at night. Or
you can crowd this bad habit out with a new healthier habit or replacement. Try
taking away the chips and candy, and replace them with carrot sticks or another
favorite vegetable instead or try stretching, sipping tea, or turning the TV
off altogether. The key with habit hunger is to first recognize that you have
made an unhealthy association and then consciously work to break the habit.
Remember, habit formation takes time, so it stands to reason that breaking the
habit will also require your commitment over the long haul.
I also suggest people begin to understand
“hunger” cues by keeping a diary. Writing down what and why you are
eating forces you to face the real reasons behind your consumption. You will
notice, as you gather this data, that certain patterns emerge. Armed with this
information, you can begin to break the code on your hunger and get back to
your basic physiological need for food that includes feeling that rumble in
your tummy as an amazing sign of how we can trust in our bodies to keep us