There are times when we eat because of mental hunger, not physical hunger. On her article on Recovery Warriors entitled “What is mental hunger? And how do you know if you should eat?” Mackenzie Hayden, who recovered from anorexia nervosa, describes mental hunger as follows:

Mental hunger can be defined as, “the act of thinking about food.” Simple as that. When you’ve spent a prolonged period of time in energy deficit, thinking about food becomes normal. It manifests itself in every way that it can, making it impossible to escape.

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You eat for many reasons, but not all of these involve the physical need for food. Many of the motivations that cause you to reach for a snack or eat more have nothing to do with your nutritional needs and everything to do with your mental and emotional desires.

And learning the difference between psychological and physical hunger can help you stay on track and make healthier choices in your diet.

What is Psychological or Mental Hunger?

There is no physical need for survival when it comes to psychological hunger. Instead of eating to keep your body alive, you are eating to satisfy a desire, unmet need, or emotional upset. Your mind has convinced you that food will help resolve these desires. You eat because you are bored, lonely, or unfulfilled, not because you physically require food.

Psychological hunger is about filling a void in your heart or mind. Still, unfortunately, no matter how much or what you eat, that void cannot be filled by food. Instead, this eating behavior can lead to excess weight, psychological strain, and a vicious cycle that is hard to break.

How can you identify if you are eating out of mental or emotional need rather than physical hunger? Here are five signs that you’re eating habits are coming from your mind, not your stomach.

Your Hunger is Not in Your Belly

Want to know if you are starving or eating for another purpose? Try this. The next time you go to eat, stop and stand still for a minute. Think about which part of your body is demanding attention. Where are you feeling hungry? Place your hand over the area that is “talking” to you. If you put your hand on your stomach, you are physically hungry. Still, if your hand lands on your head, heart, or elsewhere, you are eating to satisfy a different need.

Your Stomach is Not Empty

The next time you decide it is time for a snack or meal, take a minute to consider your hunger level. If you were to rate how physically hungry you are, how hungry are you now? For example, one is starving, five is satisfied, and ten is stuffed. It is time to eat if your hunger ranks between 1 and 4. If your rate is higher than 5, you are not eating for physical reasons, so ask yourself what you are trying to fulfill instead.

You Crave Specific Foods

If you are hungry for specific foods high in fat, salt, or sugar, you are likely not eating for any physical need. After all, physical hunger is about nutrition, so if you are hungry, then a healthy salad or piece of fruit will satisfy your requirement. But suppose your hunger demands chocolate, French fries, or other indulgences. In that case, you should look elsewhere to satisfy your cravings.

You Feel Hungry Very Quickly

Physical hunger comes on very slowly, building over time as your belly empties and your physical need sets in. However, emotional or mental urges often strike without warning, hitting you with an urgency that demands attention and focus. If you are suddenly starving without notice, ask yourself what just happened to trigger this intense need. What preceded this change in your hunger? Often, this will give you a clue as to the source of your hunger. Healthline outlines some of the reasons you may feel hungry all the time. A lack of protein or fiber in your diet or lack of sleep is linked to increased hunger.

Your Hunger Disappears without Food

If you eat only a short time after your last meal, your hunger may be more mental than physical. After all, how likely are you to still have physical and nutritional needs with food in your stomach? So before taking another, sit quietly and reflect. Feel your hunger.

Rate your void. Is your stomach still rumbling or achy? Do you still feel pangs?

If so, you may need more to eat, but wait 20 minutes and see how you feel. If, after that time, you still feel empty or like you need more food, then it is okay to eat more. But often, waiting a little while will be all you need to feel full again.

Learning to differentiate between physical and mental hunger can help curb your cravings and get your eating under control. It is the key to releasing yourself from the emotional patterns that guide your consumption. It enables you to focus you’re eating on the nutrition your body needs and deserves.

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Jeff Moji

Hi there. I'm Jeff Moji, an engineer, information technologist, and health enthusiast. I have set up this website to explore the best ways to keep fit and healthy as I grow older during this pandemic-prone time. Please keep in touch so we can exchange information and spur one another on.

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