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 type of hunger you are experiencing and treat each hunger differently 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 homone leptin (satiety hormone) but it takes 20 minutes for leptin levels to rise and the grehlin 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 and to feel festive. 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 hunger is different from physical hunger—it is fed by attention! Anticipation, presentation and enjoyment are all necessary components that feed this hunger, not portion size.

A dessert attractively displayed, served with care, and then slowly enjoyed is more satisfying than if one ate that same dessert at the refrigerator door. See tempt eating for more on how this hunger is best fed.

Accepting 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. If your eating speeds up it means you’re bored and this hunger has been satisfied. You should stop eating or at least plan on smaller portions in the future.

Triggered Hunger

Seeing, smelling, hearing food or even images of food can trigger hunger, especially if the food is high in fat, sugar and salt. Feeding this hunger can quickly expand your waistline. This type of hunger is pervasive in the modern world. People can sometimes control it with willpower but that fails when we’re tired, hungry, stressed or if there are just too many temptations.

Triggered hunger is created in a primitive part of the brain. Its purpose is to prevent starvation. These triggers were developed to encourage picking ripe berries and taking extra helpings when food was plentiful. In the past there were many lean times and it was helpful, but for most Americans there’s so much tempting food—and no famines. This is mindless eating that happens because we are cued, and it’s wreaking out health. Fortunately if we do not see food cues the hunger never develops.

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 the solution is to keep the cookie jar well hidden.

In reality we are all like the small child when we see a cookie but we also carry along a built-in adult in the form of “willpower” that sometimes says no. When willpower wins this battle we often feel deprived and hungry. Avoiding food triggers is the ideal solution but advertisers spend enormous sums of money placing their food triggers in our sight.

Studies show that when people start hiding some of these “cookie jars” they start to lose weight and that their weight loss increases with time. Here is a great TED talk on mindless eating that explains how this works.


Next time hunger strikes, take a second and identify the type of hunger. If it’s physical eat but eat slowly. If it’s emotional make a big production out of serving and eating but select a small portion and savor it. If on the other hand you think it’s triggered hunger try hiding that food from yourself in the future.

Fresh peaches can trigger different hungers

See this basket of fresh peaches, it could stir all three types of hunger.

If the hunger is physical, eating one or two can help control the appetite and stop overeating at the meal.

If the hunger is emotional, planing a great dessert around the peaches and sharing with friends will satisfy this hunger.

Just seeing a basket of peaches can create triggered hunger. Here the good news is that the food is healthy but at some point you may need to hide that basket.

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.