Relationship with food-Emotional hunger: how to identify and manage it

Relationship with food - Emotional hunger how to identify and manage it

Behind a somewhat capricious appetite, emotional hunger, needs that go beyond the physical are often hidden. If we pay attention to them, we can truly satisfy them.

Relationship with food - Emotional hunger how to identify and manage it

Many of us will have found ourselves on occasion looking for something to eat one afternoon when we did not have much to do or craving something in particular to eat after a day that had not gone too well for us. These situations describe what is called emotional hunger.

If at those times we wanted to eat, maybe it was because we felt bored or sad. The needs that came into play were emotional, not physiological. Understanding what emotional hunger is and knowing how to recognize it can help us manage it better.


It is important to be aware of our relationship with food and not to conflict with ourselves or with our different types of hunger: both the physiological and the emotional are real and not problematic or pathological in themselves.

  • It is related to the maternal bond. Food and emotions are closely linked from the moment we are born. As newborns, breast milk nourishes us and enables us to survive, but it also offers us the security and well-being of the bond with our mother.
  • We associate it with the celebrations. As we grow and socialize, food takes on a more emotional role, for example in celebrations. So, it is not uncommon as adults that we sometimes seek emotional relief in food.
  • There is a chemical factor. On the other hand, certain foods can activate the brain’s reward circuit, releasing dopamine and providing feelings of pleasure and well-being. This hedonic component of hunger is real and objective.


Emotional hunger leads us to foods that promote dopamine production more immediately, such as ultra-processed foods rich in sugars and fats.

This type of emotional hunger can become detrimental when it becomes the main way to manage emotions and starts to function as the only source of pleasure. In short, when the lack of other tools makes the act of eating serve to meet emotional needs. What signs alert us that what we feel is emotional hunger?

  • Anxiety and compulsion. When the person experiences anxiety about eating and comes to interact with food in a compulsive way, the negative repercussions on physical and mental health begin, since this can lead to overweight, feelings of guilt, anxiety-depressive symptoms and decreased self-esteem.
  • Have “diet mentality”. The situation created by emotional hunger generates frustration and rejection. We think that we should forbid ourselves food, but the more we try to control our intake, the greater the desire, and we get into a spiral where it is easy to lose control. This is the characteristic pattern of the “diet mentality”, so present in our society.
  • Guilty feeling. Although at first what we eat relieves us, the original emotion does not disappear. And, in addition, later feelings more difficult to handle appear, such as guilt.


Our emotional hunger needs us to begin to attend to it and understand it in order to be able to manage with full awareness the need it is hiding. If we want to take care of ourselves in an authentic way, we have to be able to make conscious decisions, that is, to be able to decide freely about food.

Connect with real needs

The first thing is to connect with your own needs. It involves asking each time you are hungry if we think it is physiological or emotional. Sometimes if you don’t drink enough, you are thirsty. Be careful with that confusion. Drink plenty of water throughout the day.

Ask you questions

What does it perform? Once the physiological need has been discarded, we can continue to advance in an approach to our internal emotional world. We can ask ourselves: what does my emotional hunger tell me? How do I feel? What do I need? Why do I eat? In this way we will get closer to what is happening to us and that is not evident.

Recognize your conflicting emotions

The key is learning to approach and regulate conflicting emotions differently. Look at them closely, come to understand them and give them a different, more adaptive and functional outlet in the short and long term.

Be compassionate to ourselves

It is essential that, at all times, we have a compassionate and kind attitude towards ourselves, free from judgment and censure.

Be patient

Change is a process and therefore does not follow a linear path. Sometimes you advance and sometimes you have the impression of going backwards. Something that will help you is repeating to yourself like a mantra that you are learning to manage your emotional hunger and that you need patience with the process.


  • 1. Begin to become aware of your hunger. Is it physiological or emotional hunger? Are you hungry or, rather, do you want to peck? Where do you feel that hunger in particular? Look at the signals in your body.
  • 2. Reflect on how you feel when you are hungry and try to name that emotion. The problem is not that it causes you emotional hunger, but that it is a difficult feeling to manage.
  • 3. Ask yourself what that emotion or those emotions behind your need to eat is informing you: is it something about you? Your environment? Your relationships? What does it have to do with?
  • 4. Identify the function that your emotional hunger has for you: to comfort you, to reward you, to punish you, to calm you down and relieve you, to feel safe, to feel accompanied, to vent, to feel affection, to distract you …
  • 5. Reflect on how you think you expected to feel after eating. What did you really need? What do you need to eat for?
  • 6. Experiment with what else you can do instead of eating when emotional hunger strikes. What is the best thing for you? Try until you find effective alternatives.


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