Types of hunger and how to manage them

How you think about food and respond to hunger and cravings affects your diet and overall health. As babies we eat intuitively but years of advertising, imposed meal times, food-based celebrations, comfort eating and dieting means many of us have completely lost touch with our real hunger and satiety signals.

Experts have identified 8 different types of hunger; including physical, emotional, nutritional, hormonal, contingency, taste, learned and associated. Confusing them can lead to overeating and weight gain. Learning to differentiate between hunger types takes insight, time and effort, but can help combat overeating.  Next time you feel hungry, ask yourself what kind of ‘hungry’ you are :

  1. Physical Hunger

Physical hunger is felt in the stomach and gradually builds from a slight growl to a feeling of emptiness that is hard to ignore. This kind of hunger goes away after eating as signals are sent to the brain from the stretch receptors in the stomach and chemical receptors in the gut. Physical hunger is usually always conscious and deliberate and not bound up with feelings of guilt. When you’re physically hungry your blood sugar will be tanking and you’ll find it hard to concentrate. You will usually consider most foods – at this stage a stalk of plain celery will sound appealing.

Tip: If this is what you’re feeling, don’t ignore it, eat.


  1. Emotional Hunger

Emotional hunger is sudden and urgent; one minute you’re fine, the next minute you’re starving. It’s not associated with stomach emptiness and can often be hard to satisfy, even with large amounts of food. This type of hunger is associated with the need for comfort. It’s usually specific, only one type of food, e.g. only chocolate, biscuits, bread or milk products will do. Emotional hunger is often accompanied by an unpleasant emotion or occurs in conjunction with an upsetting situation. Absent minded, automatic eating and feeling guilty afterwards is almost always the result of emotional hunger.

Tip: Are you stressed, sad, lonely, tired or grumpy? Our culture teaches us to turn to food to manage our feelings. We used to hunt food now food hunts us; it’s everywhere, all the time.

We’ve grown up associating food with comfort and happiness and expecting instant gratification, so it makes sense that we use food to soothe us instead of dealing with our emotions. The problem self-medicating with sugar and comfort foods works in the short term. But it rarely solves the problem and more often than not we end up feeling worse as we gain weight and feel depressed. Ask yourself what are you really feeling? If you are feeling emotional, try and sit with the feeling for a while or think of another way of compensating like talking to a friend or doing something that makes you happy.


  1. Nutritional Hunger

Although similar to physical hunger, it is not the same and it’s easy to confuse the two. Often people who experience nutritional hunger say they feel hungry all the time. If you feel hungry between 15-60 minutes after eating, you may not have consumed the correct amount and combination of nutrients, so the body will crave more food to try and make up the shortfall.

Tip:  Try to look at your food in terms of its nutrient density. If the foods you’re eating are processed, refined, sugar and carb laden then your body’s need for real nutrition will never be satisfied. This can quickly become a vicious cycle, eat junk food – fail to get the nutrients your body needs – don’t feel satisfied – eat more junk food and so on. This is one of the most common reasons for putting weight on.


  1. Hormonal Hunger

If you get a craving for something sweet after a meal it could mean you haven’t eaten enough protein, check here for your individual protein requirements http://www.healthcalculators.org/calculators/protein.asp. Alternatively it could be hormonal.

For some of us there may be ‘times of the month’ when it’s a little more prevalent than we would like. Often, mid-afternoon cravings or an evening desire for dessert, even when you’re not hungry are often down to unregulated blood sugar. Sugar and carbs interfere with our brain chemicals and hormones. The good news is, the longer you resist these cravings the less you should experience – but no-one is saying it’s easy, it isn’t!

Tip: Try to think of food in terms of what will nourish and what will unbalance your body. A general rule of thumb is if it’s natural or comes from a plant eat it, if it was made in a plant – don’t. Your hormones will be much better behaved!


  1. Contingency Hunger

Our lives are hectic and let’s face it – show no sign of slowing down! Many of us are dealing with minimum 12 hour days, rushing from and to appointments grabbing food where we can. For some of us, being truly, physically hungry is not something we’re very comfortable with, so we eat when we aren’t hungry – to prevent ourselves from getting hungry! 

Tip:  Physical hunger is a good thing sometimes. In fact, current scientific data suggests we may actually need periods of fasting for optimal metabolic functioning. Intermittent fasting leads to more efficient fat burning; reduced insulin resistance which cuts cravings and inflammation and improved blood pressure and brain function. 


  1. Taste Hunger

Buffets, restaurant dessert trolleys, office bake offs – all situations where we eat because the food is there, rather than because we need or even want it. It looks good so how can you resist, just a little taste?

Tip: Everyone experiences taste hunger, it’s natural and can be enjoyable if you learn to accept it and satisfy it – in the right way. The trick is to pay attention to how often you experience taste hunger and what your trigger situations or foods are. Life is about balance, I strive to live by the 80/20 rule, if I can eat well 80% of the time, I’m happy with that, after all, life is short and a little of what you fancy does you good. It’s taken me a long time to realise it’s not about banning particular foods; it’s about creating a healthy, life-long relationship with food.


  1. Learned Hunger: (Eating by the clock)

Breakfast at 7am, lunch at 12pm and dinner at 6pm – you can set your watch by it. Maybe you’ve been taught to believe that eating little and often is healthy – see my article ‘5 common nutrition mistakes that keep us overweight and sick’. Hunger and more commonly, when we should be hungry’ is learned. We’re conditioned from a very young age to eat at certain times.  Babies operate on their own clock, they eat when they’re physically hungry (hence the 3am feedings) and stop when they’re satisfied. It’s not until our parents make us eat breakfast when we get up, lunch at noon, and dinner at six that we start becoming ‘hungry’ at those times. We also make subconscious associations between eating and certain activities – popcorn at the cinema, Friday night pizza night, etc.

Tip: We can recondition our bodies to listen to our true hunger cues e.g. stomach rumbling. If you eat by the clock, try experimenting, eat an hour later, see what happens, chances are you’ll live to tell the tale!


8. Hunger by Association

You’re at a restaurant with a group of friends having dinner. You all had a great meal; you’re completely satisfied and then everyone starts ordering dessert. Suddenly, there’s room in your stomach for a slice of cake. You’re definitely hungry again – but for dessert not celery! Hunger by association occurs when we see someone else eating something desirable and want some too. It’s like peer pressure with no actual ‘pressure’ required.

Tip: Like taste hunger, hunger by association is natural and can be enjoyable if you learn to accept it and satisfy it – in the right way. Again, try to adopt the 80/20 rule. Also, usually the first mouthful tastes the best so consider sharing whatever it is you are coveting.


Recognising Your Hunger

Becoming aware of your hunger and changing your habits isn’t easy, it requires a change of mind set, awareness and perseverance. When you are hungry, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do I feel emotionally? (Hunger should not be connected to emotions)
  • How long is it since I last ate? (Should be 3 – 4 hours on most days)
  • What do I feel like eating? (Is it sensible or is it comfort food?)
  • Have my meals been balanced lately?


Also, use the following scale to rate your hunger and decide whether it is sensible to have something to eat. You can also use this to help you know when to stop eating. Avoid the bold areas.

  • Physically Faint
  • Ravenous
  • Fairly Hungry (Eat)
  • Quite Hungry (Eat)
  • Neutral
  • Pleasantly Satisfied (Stop Eating)
  • Full (Stop Eating)
  • Stuffed
  • Bloated
  • Nauseous

Shani Shaker BA (hons), dipION, mBANT, CNHC, is a registered nutritional therapist with a focus on regenerative and functional nutrition, disordered eating, addiction and mental health. Based in London her services include one-to-one coaching, group classes and Skype sessions. Contact her at [email protected]Shani Shaker: Health, Beauty & Nutrition Therapist

Disclaimer: The information provided is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition. Supplementation should only be temporary. If you’re eating a nutrient-rich diet, extra supplementation should only last for a month or two, just long enough to resolve the deficiency.


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