The Seven Types of Hunger

Dec 05, 2023


We’re all familiar with the feeling that hunger gives us. Hunger is there to serve a specific purpose – it’s there to stimulate us to eat. However, living like we do in the western world, hunger can bring about over-eating and as a result health problems. We’re going to uncover the different triggers that stimulate the feelings of hunger, how to recognize what is driving the hunger and what we can do to try and control these impulses.


1. Physical Hunger

Physical hunger is the most fundamental type of hunger. It occurs when your body genuinely needs nourishment to function properly. The signs of physical hunger include a growling stomach, a feeling of emptiness in your abdomen, and sometimes even light-headedness or irritability. When you experience physical hunger, it's essential to eat balanced, nutritious meals to satisfy your body's needs.

Hunger is a complex physiological sensation regulated by various signals and mechanisms within your body. It is primarily controlled by the brain, particularly the hypothalamus, which plays a central role in regulating appetite and food intake.

There is a cascade of hormones that include Ghrelin (the main "hunger hormone"), Insulin, PYY/GLP-1 & Leptin. These all work together to signal to your brain when you need to eat and when you’ve had enough food.


2. Mental Hunger

Mental hunger occurs when your mind craves specific foods or flavours, even if your body isn't physically hungry. This type of hunger can be triggered by seeing, smelling, or thinking about a particular food item.

For example, if you see a cake when you’re out shopping, or in a party. This often leads to mindless snacking or craving unhealthy foods. You might see a banana on the kitchen worktop, and this might make you feel hungry. You might see an ad on tv about a specific cereal. A toaster might stimulate a need for toast.

Being aware of mental hunger can help you make mindful choices and opt for healthier alternatives when possible. Removing cues to eat or keeping unhealthy foods out of the way may help decrease these sensations.


3. Habitual Hunger

Habitual hunger is driven by routines and habits. You might feel hungry simply because it's your usual mealtime, even if you've recently eaten or don't have genuine physical hunger.

You might have a habit of going to the fridge every time you walk in from work. You might have a habit of going to the cupboard for a biscuit to accompany your tea. You might find watching a television programme is associated with a specific food.

The first step to overcoming habitual hunger is awareness. To realise when and where it might happen and then break the link the brain has made between the activity and the food. This might involve substituting a new habit eg avoiding the kitchen and going to a different room when arriving home from work, or having a bit of cheese instead of a biscuit with your tea.


4. Nutrient Hunger

Nutrient hunger occurs when your body is specifically craving certain nutrients or micronutrients. For example, you might crave leafy greens if you need more iron, or fish if you require omega-3 fatty acids. Paying attention to these cravings can guide you towards a more balanced diet.

Unfortunately, being overweight/ obese is often linked to being malnourished. A body deficient in vitamins and minerals will increase hunger sensations to compensate. Ultra-processed foods lack vitamins. And whilst taking a multivitamin might help, it will never be as effective as eating real food (vegetables and meat).


5. Thirst Confusion

Sometimes, your body can confuse thirst with hunger. Dehydration can trigger sensations that mimic hunger, leading you to eat when your body needs fluids. To avoid this confusion, ensure you stay adequately hydrated throughout the day by drinking water regularly. And if you are feeling hungry at an unexpected time – drink a glass of water and wait 20 minutes to see if it passes.



6. Necessity Hunger

This isn’t true hunger but rather a need to eat in anticipation of hunger later when you won’t be able to eat. Let’s say you are at work and you have back to back meetings coming up, during which you will likely get hungry.  Although you are not hungry in the moment, you eat in order to stay ahead of the inevitable hunger. Remember that this “hunger” is valid and very important to pay attention to.

Some people develop a fear around the feeling of hunger. It may be rooted in childhood – maybe a punishment of not having tea because of misbehaving. If this was done frequently it could lead to a fear of the feeling of hunger and one can develop behaviours to ensure that you don’t activate these triggers.


7. Emotional Hunger

Last but not least is emotional hunger. This is a very common one. This is when you eat in response to a strong emotion – maybe sadness, anger, loneliness, tiredness or even happiness and joy.

Emotional hunger is most often triggered by negative emotions. You essentially find yourself eating for comfort or a sad situation. The problem is that although eating gives you short-term satisfaction (so you feel good in the moment,) these feelings are quickly replaced by those of shame and guilt. This is where beliefs about being weak, lacking willpower take hold.  

So how do we know if we’re eating because of an emotional trigger or a real need for food?

Emotional hunger comes on suddenly – it can literally hit you. It feels overwhelming, It feels urgent. It can feel desperate. You might feel you ‘need’ the food. This is in contrast to a genuine hunger which comes on more gradual, you don’t feel the urgency or the desperation.

Emotional hunger is often linked to cravings. Emotional hunger arises from your head rather than your stomach – you don’t have the empty feeling in the stomach, rather you have a feeling focussed on textures, tastes and smells.

This is usually linked to overeating. This is the occasion where you would eat a whole bag of crisps, a big chocolate bar, the whole tub of ice cream. You may also not be satisfied when you’re physically full, you will have a need for more and more and only really stop when you feel physically overstuffed. And this feeling will often add to the feelings of guilt and shame.

If you want to understand more about this type of eating then make sure you read our blog dedicated to emotional eating.

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