Types of Hunger Explained – What Drives Us to Eat?

One of the most fundamental and misunderstood topics in food and nutrition is hunger. Diet culture has conditioned many people into thinking that we can only eat if we experience that uncomfortable gnawing of biological hunger. Cultivating a peaceful relationship with food includes honoring three other types of hunger as well: taste, emotional and practical. 

Continue reading to explore each of the four types of hunger and how to recognize them. Understanding what influences our drive to eat can make a significant impact on how we connect with hunger.

1) Biological/Physical Hunger

A simplified explanation of biological hunger is – the body sensations and cues you receive when your brain is communicating the need for fuel. When your body is in need of energy there are complex mechanisms in place that trigger both physical and psychological cues and sensations. Some physical sensations include fatigue, nausea, headache, shaking and dizziness. Psychological affects of biological hunger can include irritability, loss of focus and increased thoughts about food.  

These complex mechanisms represent this dynamic relationship between our brain and body. When the brain determines a need for more energy it turns on our drive to eat. We then experience biological hunger in both physical and psychological ways. 

In my previous post on the hunger scale and intuitive eating, I discussed how recognizing and responding to biological hunger is key to strengthening our inner cues. But, don’t fall prey to the diet trap mentality of “you can only eat when biologically hungry”. Biological hunger is not the only type of hunger to honor and satisfy. 

2) Taste Hunger

Taste hunger is explained as having a desire to eat food because it sounds good. When you crave a specific food or meal that you eat and enjoy, that is honoring your taste hunger. If you have ever tried to swap a diet approved food for one that you’re craving, you are often left unsatisfied and the craving persists. 

Another example of taste hunger is enjoying foods that are part of a cultural tradition or celebration. You may not be biologically hungry but enjoying the food during the celebration is a part of taste hunger. Take a moment to think about what cultural or celebratory occasions incorporate a traditional food or meal and how restricting that food may impact your overall experience.

3) Emotional Hunger

Emotional hunger is seeking to cope with emotions by eating. This type of hunger is the most taboo in diet culture, often associated with deep feelings of shame. The reality is food can be incredibly soothing and regulating to our nervous system, providing some temporary relief from our emotions. 

With this type of hunger there is an unmet need or feeling that ultimately won’t be satisfied with food alone. I consider emotional hunger to be one tool in the coping strategy toolbox when seeking to comfort and care for ourselves. Eating may provide some initial feelings of relief, but ultimately explore additional coping strategies to engage with your emotions.

Is This Emotional or Biological Hunger?

Determining emotional hunger from biological hunger can be challenging as both types of hunger can illicit feeling out of control with food. Both biological hunger and emotional hunger can affect how fast you eat, how much you eat and the types of food you desire. Inspired from chapter 12 of Intuitive Eating (1), I’ve created a flowchart to help differentiate and further explore these two types of hunger.

Am I biologically hungry? A flowchart to differentiate biological hunger and emotional hunger.

The first question you want to explore is “am I biologically hungry?“. If you are unsure that’s ok, stay curious. How long has it been since you last ate? Can you recognize any body cues or sensations that may indicate biological hunger? Did your last meal or snack have some brain fuel aka carbohydrate? If you are still unsure, go ahead and eat. Afterward you can determine if eating satisfied any physical or physiological cues you were experiencing.

If you don’t recognize any body sensations or cues that indicate biological hunger but feel an urge to eat, try exploring some additional questions. Ask yourself “what am I feeling?“. Maybe you can talk with someone you trust, journal or any other activity that helps quiet your mind and connect with your thoughts and feelings.

Next, ask yourself “what do I need?”. Is it possible that food is a way you are caring for yourself and an attempt to find rest, connection, or creativity? Consider what action or activity might fulfill that need.

If you are able to identify a need, can you ask someone for help? Can you delegate household chores, ask for alone time, ask a friend to meet you for an activity or hobby? Your needs matter, learning how to ask for help can be incredibly empowering.

Taking time to explore both types of hunger, biological and emotional, can bring you closer to experiencing peace with food. You may notice that after consistently responding to biological hunger, you don’t experience or identify emotional hunger quite as much. Alternatively, if you often feel the desire to eat in the absence of biological hunger, you can begin identifying what emotion or need is unmet.

4) Practical Hunger

The final and fourth type of hunger is practical hunger. Practical hunger is also referred to as planned hunger. This type of hunger is preparing for and anticipating biological hunger when a busy schedule or event requires us to do so. Practical hunger provides space for us to be flexible instead of rigid with our eating. 

Here are some examples of practical hunger:

  • Eating dinner before an evening event such as a concert or play
  • Eating a meal before a long flight
  • Eating an early lunch if you’ll be stuck in meetings during your normal lunch break
  • Packing a snack if you’re running errands and unsure of how long you’ll be out
  • Eating a morning snack or smaller breakfast before a planned brunch
  • Eating a provided meal during the scheduled time at a conference

We can recognize that though we may not feel biological hunger in that moment, we can plan for and prevent that uncomfortable, hangry, biological hunger later. The flexibility with practical hunger allows us to prioritize energy and nutrients over rigidity and/or restriction. 

Putting It All Together

All four types of hunger are valid and part of a peaceful relationship with food and body. Now that you know more about the different types of hunger, you may notice that different hungers can overlap to satisfy and meet the occasion. I hope this makes connecting with hunger more enjoyable, knowing that we don’t only eat for fuel. Eating is also a part of our social, emotional, cultural and celebratory experiences as humans. 

References

  1. Resch E, Triole E. 2020. Intuitive Eating. A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach (St. Martin’s Essentials, New York) (Fourth Edition). St Martin’s Publishing Group.

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