different hungers are satisfied in their own way

Surprise! There are Different Hungers-use it for Healthier Eating.

Different Hungers

Hunger is not always a physical need for food. We can be hungry for dessert even after a meal or want a donut when we see that pastry box. Here are the three different types of food hunger:

  1. Physical Hunger – Food to calm stomach pangs—The signal that the body needs fuel
  2. Emotional Hunger – Food as a way to boost mood and celebrate occasions and goals
  3. Triggered Hunger – Food cue initiated desire—the body’s famine prevention strategy

If you pay attention to the different hungers you experience and treat each hunger appropriately so you can feel satisfied without overeating.

Physical Hunger

This is usually the type we have in mind when we discuss hunger. It’s actually not a common sensation for Americans—we tend to eat regular meals. This type of hunger starts several hours after the last meal or snack. It’s initiated when the body produces the hormone ghrelin (hunger hormone), which makes us feel uncomfortable and focuses our mind on food. The longer this hunger is ignored, the worse the symptoms become.

Physical hunger can only be satisfied by eating. When one starts eating, the body starts to produce the hormone leptin (satiety hormone) but it takes 20 minutes for leptin levels to rise and the ghrelin hormone to wash out of the body. Only then do the hunger pangs stop. That means we can feel hunger pangs even after the body is adequately fueled.

Knowing that it takes time for hunger pangs to go away is important. No matter how much or how fast one eats one can’t make those pangs go away any faster! It’s easy to eat more food than needed in those hungry 20 minutes. Making an effort to slow down the eating pace will result in feeling satisfied with far less food.

Emotional Hunger

We use food to improve our mood, to feel festive or cared for. Having food makes us feel safe, worthy and loved. Emotional hunger is real and should be fed. We are deserving of treats in life and people who routinely deny themselves food rewards are at higher risk for eating disorders.

Food helps us to feel good. Think of all the social occasions you attend and how special foods made them better. Do you celebrate special occasions with leftovers? Would you consider a birthday party without cake? Do you ban food from boring meetings? No, because emotional hunger requires special treats.

This is a different hunger—it is fed by attention! Anticipation, presentation and enjoyment are all necessary to feed this hunger. What is not necessary is a large portion size.

A dessert attractively displayed, served with care, and then slowly enjoyed satisfies this hunger. Eating that same dessert quickly at the refrigerator door is not as effective and requires a larger portion for less effect. See tempt eating for more on how this hunger is best fed.

Understanding that emotional hunger is fed by attention makes it easy to control. Give it more attention and fewer calories. Plan treats ahead of time, build anticipation by displaying the food in pleasing ways, use the good dishes—but serve small portions and focus on the pleasure of eating. Savor the food. Eat with friends but don’t allow distractions like the TV or phone. If your eating speeds up it means you’ve become bored and this hunger has been satisfied. You should stop eating or at least plan on smaller portions in the future.

Triggered Hunger

Seeing an image, hearing the crunch or smelling food can trigger hunger, especially if the food is high in fat, sugar and salt. Feeding this hunger has quickly expanded the American waistline. This hunger is pervasive in the modern world. Sometimes it can be controlled with willpower but that system fails when we’re tired, hungry, stressed or if there are just too many temptations in our path.

Triggered hunger is comes from a primitive part of the brain. Its purpose is to prevent starvation. These triggers were developed to encourage picking ripe berries and taking an extra helpings when food is plentiful. In the past it compensated for the lean times. Now, for most Americans, there’s so much tempting food—and no famines. This is mindless eating, hunger that develops only with food cues.

Small children demonstrate triggered hunger the best. A cookie jar at eye level triggers a desire for a cookie. The adults get worn down with constant requests for a cookie until they give in or the child grabs a cookie when the adult back is turned. Parents the world over have learned that the solution is to keep the cookie jar well hidden.

In reality we are all small children when we see a cookie but we also carry along a built-in adult, called “willpower” that says no (sometimes). When willpower wins we still feel deprived and hungry making it harder for willpower to say “no” again.

Avoiding food triggers is the ideal solution but advertisers spend enormous sums of money placing their foods at eye level, adding sounds like ice machines and filling buildings with delectable smells. Studies show that when people find ways to avoid food triggers  they lose weight and keep it off. Here is a great TED talk on mindless eating that explains how this works.


Next time hunger strikes, take a second and identify the hunger.

  • Is it’s physical hunger? Then eat, but eat slowly.
  • Is it’s emotional hunger? Then make an effort serving the food, select a small portion and savor it.
  • Is it triggered hunger? Then hide the food, if the craving remains treat it like emotional hunger.

Fresh peaches can trigger different hungers

See this basket of fresh peaches? It can stir up all the different hungers.

  • Physical: Eating one or two peaches will control your appetite and help stop overeating at the next meal.
  • Emotional: Plan a great dessert around the peaches. Share with friends and that will satisfy this hunger.
  • Triggered: Seeing fruit instead of junk food will have you eating more fruit. 

For Americans triggered hunger is usually the biggest source of weight gain. We can’t make headway against this hunger until we acknowledge that triggered eating is more tenacious than willpower and that we all succumb when pressed, no matter how strong or educated we are.

Do you see these three types of hunger in your life? Next time I’ll discuss ways to better manage each hunger to provide food satisfaction and weight control.