The 4 Different Types of Hunger + Why They’re All Valid
There are 4 different types of hunger and each one is completely valid.
A common error when kicking off this journey is to turn intuitive eating itself into a diet – The Hunger/Fullness Diet – to be exact. Or the “If I Fix My Relationship with Food, I’ll Naturally Eat Like a Bird Diet.”
It’s nothing to beat yourself up over. We’ve all done it. And when you approach intuitive eating with the dieter’s brain you’ve yet to heal, it makes sense.
The biggest obstacle underlying this error is believing that intuitive eating is in service of eating less, or only when physically hungry and always stopping at the perfect level of fullness. Or finally eating like you wanted to eat when you were dieting – just without all the struggle, binging and emotional eating.
The hard thing for our diet brains to understand as we get going on this hike, is that the goal is to just eat normally.
And “normal” might not look like you were hoping it would look. “Normal” might not look acceptable to you just yet. What diet culture has trained you to believe is an adequate amount of food is not necessarily and adequate amount of food. Plus, you are allowed to eat even when you’re not physically hungry. You don’t lose points for that. Which is another barometer many of our clients start out gaging their success with.
The point is not to effortlessly eat in some mythically, perfect way. The point is to feel like food is a non-issue. The point is to feel that you can combine your instincts, emotions and rational thought (adults who care about health likely know vegetables are good for them) in order to take care of yourself through food without all the drama.
So today, we wanted to share an expanded version of what hunger looks like that could be helpful. Because physical hunger isn’t the only valid form. And it’s useful to understand and decipher between the different types in order to meet your needs better. Labeling these different types will help you understand what’s driving your desire to eat and better respond to your body’s cues. It can also lead you to greater satisfaction and joy around food, which can be an important part of healing for many.
We’re also unpacking this topic on the pod this week so, if you’re rather listen in to that, you can do so here:
There are actually four different types of hunger. All of them are valid.
The 4 Different Types of Hunger:
1. Physical Hunger
We talk a lot about physical hunger and honoring it around here. Being well fed with adequate nourishment is the foundation for healing your relationship with food. It’s also the most obvious form of hunger. However, after dieting for some time, we’re not always connected to our more subtle hunger cues like anxiety, headaches, shakiness, inability to concentrate, moodiness, or even just thinking about food. Hunger presents itself in many ways and it can change moment to moment. It’s not just that empty, gnawing feeling in your stomach. We talk about the challenges of getting to know you physical hunger cues on this podcast if you’re interested.
2. Taste Hunger
Taste Hunger is lesser known than physical hunger but it happens when you have a taste/craving/hankering for a certain food outside or alongside, physical hunger. It’s just a fancy way of saying something sounds really good right now. It doesn’t have to be accompanied by physical hunger to be valid, right and worthy of a response. It’s a real thing and is important to build satisfaction and joy back into our lives around food. It can also be our bodies’ innate wisdom whispering to us. You are absolutely allowed to eat when you’re not physically hungry to satisfy taste hunger. You are allowed to eat simply for the pleasure you get from doing so.
3. Emotional Hunger
Emotional hunger is mostly understood in our fat phobic society to be negative and deemed invalid. It happens when unmet emotional needs present themselves through a desire to eat. If you have dieted, you’re likely familiar. Emotional hunger can be positive though too. Being excited for a special family recipe you make and enjoy with your grandmother. Birthday cake. Wedding feasts. These are all examples of normal and well-adjusted emotional eating.
Diet culture has demonized emotional eating out of fear or weight gain. But, eating to celebrate or soothe ourselves isn’t inherently wrong. We have a natural inclination to gather and celebrate with food. And food can be extremely comforting or distracting at times. Where this one goes a little haywire is when it’s a.) our only coping tool and b.) it’s ineffective (and likely making the problem worse by compounding the negative emotions with guilt and shame).
There are definitive ways to decipher between physical and emotional hunger and we work with our clients inside our intuitive eating coaching program around this a lot. But we believe that emotional eating can be positive in many instances. And the “negative” kind, or the kind that bothers us, is simply an ineffective yet benign coping skill.
4. Practical Hunger
Practical Hunger is more about planning and logistics. We recently had a client who is a professor and due to her teaching schedule, she is not able to sit down for a meal a few days a week for lunch. This was causing her to become uncomfortably hungry later in the day, and leading to eating past the point of being full in the afternoons, leaving her feeling wiped out of energy on those days. This is an issue of practical hunger. Sometimes we do need to make some adjustments, plan meals out and eat when we’re not physically hungry in order to practice good self-care. Practical hunger is using rational thought to get your food and energy needs met, even if that means not following your hunger and fullness to a tee.
There is nothing wrong with eating in response to any of these different types of hunger. There is nothing wrong with eating, full stop. The better question is “how do I want to feel?”
Let’s discuss a couple examples that combine different types of hunger, as life often does:
I realize that I have a combination of physical hunger and also taste hunger specifically for potato chips one afternoon. In this instance, knowing myself and how food can affect how I physically feel, I might make the self-care choice to eat a whole, balanced meal that includes potato chips to satisfy both types of hunger. I know taste hunger is valid and want to honor it but, I also know that physical hunger likely won’t be fulfilled in a way that feels good on chips alone.
I am preparing for a long day of traveling, including a flight. I acknowledge my practical hunger by packing something that will keep me satisfied and energized for a long day of travel. And I’ll anticipate emotional hunger in that I am a nervous flyer and having some sort of nibbly food tends to distract and comfort me while waiting for take off. I will include some fun snacks like Twizzlers and pretzels that I know will be comforting but have plenty of work foods available as well so I feel physically well.
I have a combination of emotional hunger at the end of a stressful day and also taste hunger for a bowl of sweet, cold, crunchy cereal. Since I know that eating cereal with milk typically leaves me feeling badly (I have milk intolerance) I might make the self-care choice to eat something else and prioritize feeling well over my taste hunger.
The point is not to make any of these hungers wrong. But to get to know yourself, your hunger and your tendencies better. For instance, if you know Thursdays are long busy days and you’re in the habit of not tending to practical hunger, you might find yourself binging every Thursday evening.
Or, if you notice you emotionally eat but don’t have any other, more effective, go-to tools in your self-care tool box, perhaps it’s time to experiment with adding in some coping skills alongside eating and see if that is more effective for processing the underlying emotions in a way that physically feels good.
This journey of intuitive eating is a process of unlearning and relearning and reconnecting to ourselves. Of clearing away the debris of diet culture and getting more familiar with your own needs while trusting your internal guidance and cues to get those needs met.
All hunger is valid. And honoring it all in a way that feels physically good is a great way to heal. Getting to know the different types of hunger and how to best respond to them is a very useful skill along the way.
If you need help understanding and getting to know your own hunger, perhaps it’s time to book a Breakthrough Session with us. We’ll help you unpack what’s off in your relationship with food and guide you toward building one that feels empowered and peaceful. You can book that free Breakthrough Session here.