Hunger Games:
Physical Hunger vs Emotional Hunger

Physical hunger vs emotional hunger is like trying to tell the difference between a real diamond and a cubic zirconia. Or a real smile and a fake smile. It takes some awareness.

Emotional hunger is like a kryptonite to your weight loss efforts.  Differentiating between the two after bariatric surgery can mean the difference between fitting into your skinny jeans vs being THAT person who regained all their weight back. 

It's tricky game, but fear not! I've got tips to help you... 

Physical Hunger vs Emotional Hunger:
How to Tell the Difference 

Body vs Brain

Physical hunger is like the gas gauge in your car pointing to empty. It's your body's way of telling you to refuel. It’s the body's natural signal that it needs nourishment to function properly, like when your stomach starts growling because you haven't eaten in a few hours.

Emotional hunger, on the other hand, is driven by feelings rather than a physical need for food. It's like when you break up with your significant other and suddenly, you're ravenous for an entire tub of ice cream . Or when you see a new season of your favorite show has dropped on Netflix and suddenly you're shoveling handfuls of Cheetos into your mouth like there's no tomorrow.

Slow Burn vs Fire

Physical hunger comes on gradually, like a slow burn. Physical means you can feel it.

Early physical hunger may mean:

  • Stomach growling
  • Stomach pain
  • Stomach feeling “empty”

But the longer it goes on:

  • Low energy
  • Irritable
  • Cranky
  • “Hangry”
  • Headache


  • Trouble concentrating/focusing
  • Shaky
  • Dizzy
  • Nauseous

Emotional hunger, on the other hand, is like a fire that just erupted out of nowhere. You're suddenly ravenous and you MUST HAVE THAT CHEESEBURGER NOW. Or you're not even hungry, but you see a picture of a giant slice of pizza and suddenly your think your stomach is growling like a starving lion.

Satiable or Unsatiable?

Physical hunger can be satisfied with a healthy, balanced meal. If you're physically hungry, an omelet or a chicken salad does the trick, and you don’t feel regret or shame when you’re done.

Emotional hunger, however, is often accompanied by cravings for unhealthy foods, like a tub of ice cream or an entire pizza. No amount of celery sticks will satisfy it. In fact, the mere suggestion of eating celery might make your emotional hunger even worse.

Emotional hunger doesn’t end once you’re full. That’s because emotional hunger doesn’t originate in your stomach. It starts with a thought of wanting to eat. It’s most commonly related to these emotions:

  • Bored
  • Sad
  • Mad

-Or Possibly-

  • Lonely
  • Procrastinating 
  • Stressed

The reason you can eat and eat and eat until you’re uncomfortably stuffed when you feed emotional hunger is because you’re trying to satisfy something other than physical hunger. Simply said: “You can never get enough of what you don’t need.”

Emotional hunger almost always leads to regret, guilt, and/or shame. It's like eating a whole cake by yourself, you enjoy it at the time, but then you feel guilty afterwards.

Nourishment vs Pleasure

Physical hunger is more about nourishment than pleasure. When you're physically hungry, you're just trying to fuel your body like filling up your car with gas.

Emotional hunger, on the other hand, is ALL about pleasure. It's like, "I'm not hungry, I just really, really want that entire box of donuts. And maybe a pint of ice cream. And a bag of candy. And a cake. And a bottle of chocolate syrup to dip it all in. Mmmmmmmm."

Need vs Want

Physical hunger vs emotional hunger can ultimately be boiled down to one question:

Do you NEED to eat? Or do you WANT to eat? 

Become a Hunger Games Champion

It’s time to bring this newfound knowledge to the table and determine if you’re eating in response to physical hunger or emotional hunger because the next round of hunger games is just around the corner.

Step 1:

Raise your awareness. Keep a rubber band or hair tie on your wrist and give yourself a light snap when you feel the urge to eat. Use it as a reminder to ask yourself, "is this physical hunger vs emotional hunger?"

Step 2:

The Apple Test. Not sure which it is?

When you think you're hungry, ask yourself if an apple would suffice. If an apple sounds delicious, you're probably physically hungry. But if a large order of fries sounds better, it's probably emotional hunger rearing its ugly head, like a dragon in your stomach.

Dealing with Emotional Hunger After Bariatric Surgery

Ah, so you've uncovered the truth: you're an emotional eater. Don't fret, we've all been there. But now that you know, it's time to take action:

Uncover the root of your cravings. Are you eating your feelings at work? Boredom-snacking? Keep a food and mood journal to figure out what's really going on.

Get creative with alternatives. Knitting, reading, or even just venting to a friend can be great ways to distract from cravings. See my video tutorial on how to make a list of "3-30-3" things to do.

Stock up on healthy bariatric snacks for those moments of weakness, like a knight stocking up on potions before a battle.

Physical Hunger vs Emotional Hunger:
The Bottom Line for Your Bottom Line

Physical hunger is like a friendly reminder to eat, while emotional hunger is like a nagging reminder to deal with your feelings.

  • Increase your awareness: Keep a rubberband on your wrist and every time you feel the urge to chow down, give it a little snap and ask yourself, "Is this physical hunger or emotional hunger?"
  • If you're not sure, just do the "apple test", because who doesn't love a good old fashioned fruit experiment?

If you find yourself constantly giving in to emotional eating:

  • Grab a pen and paper and start journaling to uncover the root of your cravings
  • Find some healthier alternatives
  • Keep some bariatric friendly snacks around as a backup plan

Will you use this newfound knowledge to conquer the cookie monster within or will you let emotional hunger reign supreme? The choice is yours. May the odds be ever in your favor.

P.S. It’s okay to indulge once in a while. Just don't let emotional eating take the wheel. And hey, maybe you'll even learn to appreciate the taste of an apple over a bag of chips. (But don't hold me to that, we all have our dragon to slay).

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