In intuitive eating, you hear a lot about hunger. But did you know there are more ways to experience hunger than just physical hunger? This post explores the four types of hunger in intuitive eating - physical, emotional, taste and practical - and how to respond to each.
Us non-diet dietitians talk a lot about hunger in intuitive eating between the hunger/fullness scale, recognizing early signs of physical hunger, and the restrict/binge cycle. But there’s more to hunger than just physical hunger.
One thing I frequently discuss with my clients are the four types of hunger in intuitive eating and how to distinguish between them, so I thought it would be helpful to create this blog post as a resource. This is something I’ve come up with through my work with clients, and I find it’s really helpful to understand what might be fueling the desire to eat so you can better respond to your body’s cues.
The Four Types of Hunger in Intuitive Eating
Physical hunger stems from a need for energy from food. Just like when our bladder stretches, it signals a need to pee, or when our mouth feels dry, it signals a need to hydrate, when we feel the physical signs of hunger, it means we need food. We normally think of hunger as an empty or gnawing sensation in the stomach, but you can also experience signs of hunger outside the stomach. Sometimes physical hunger can present as fatigue, anxiety, headaches, shakiness, or just thinking more about food. The only way to take care of physical hunger is to eat!
Taste hunger occurs when you have a taste for a specific food that may present outside of physical hunger or alongside it. Basically, taste hunger is when a food just sounds good! An example of pure taste hunger might be when you’ve just eaten a satisfying meal at a restaurant, see the dessert menu, and feel taste hungry when you see something appealing on it. Remember, taste hunger is valid hunger! You are allowed to eat when you’re not hungry, just because something looks or sounds good. However, when you know more tasty foods are coming, you might not feel an urgency to fulfill every taste hunger you experience.
Emotional hunger is when you have an unmet emotional need that presents itself with a desire to eat food. This is what we refer to as “emotional eating,” a phrase I kinda, sorta hate, but people know what I’m talking about when I say it. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish physical and emotional hunger. Some ways to tell if it’s an emotional hunger is when it comes on quickly in conjunction with an intense emotion. You might have also recently eaten, or feel the need for comfort, security or distraction more so than a need for energy. Below is a graphic I use with clients to help distinguish emotional and physical hunger.
Practical hunger isn’t really hunger per say, but rather a need to eat in response to anticipated physical hunger that you won’t be able to satisfy. An example might be eating a large meal before a long plane ride or having lunch during a set lunch break, even though you’re not hungry at the moment. Here’s a post I wrote on practical hunger.
Eating is an appropriate response to all of these hungers. I will repeat, ALL OF THESE HUNGERS ARE VALID. Sometimes I hear people say emotional hunger or taste hunger isn’t real, but it’s just as real as physical hunger.
That said, it’s helpful to know which hunger (or hungers) you are experiencing, as it gives you helpful information about how you’d like to satisfy it. For example, I might be experiencing significant physical hunger, along with a taste hunger for cookies. Since cookies are delicious, but not really filling, what I would probably do is either pair a satisfying snack or meal with cookies for dessert, or have that meal or snack and wait a bit to see if I still am hungry for cookies. Or, if I was experiencing an emotional hunger, I might choose to satisfy it for food, or I might reach for another self care tool in my toolbox.
I hope understanding the four types of hungers in intuitive eating is a helpful tool for you! Leave any questions in the comments below.