Kelsey Graham by Kelsey Graham

Hunger is the body’s signal indicating the biological need for food, but most of us often eat for reasons that reflect other forms of hunger. Have you ever walked into a movie theatre and ordered a large popcorn, even though you’re still full from lunch? Or soothed a broken heart with a tub of rocky road?

Many things, beyond a physical need for fuel, can present as an urge to eat. Understanding the complex nature of hunger and appetite can help you differentiate between when you’re truly hungry and when your hunger signals may reflect other needs.

Physical Hunger

Physical hunger manifests through various bodily signals: a growling or cavernous stomach, weakness, headaches, trouble concentrating and even a depressed or grumpy mood. Understanding and responding to these signs is crucial. When physical hunger is ignored, the body ignites complex biological mechanisms that can spur increased hunger and eating over time.

When hunger is ignored, the body will:

  • Increase the levels of neuropeptide Y, a brain chemical that encourages food (specifically carbohydrate) consumption.
  • Increase the production of ghrelin, a hormone that increases hunger.
  • Decrease the production of leptin, a hormone that enhances satiety.

Clearly, ignoring physical hunger is not a sound strategy for long-term health. Other factors that alter physical hunger include lack of sleep, high stress levels and consuming a low-nutrient diet.

Learn to Listen

Rather than trying to work against your hunger, learn to work with it. Start by becoming mindful of your body’s hunger-indicating signals and practice responding to those signals regularly. Check in with your hunger periodically and take note of your personal indicators suggesting that it’s time to eat. If you find yourself constantly hungry, consider upping your consumption of whole, nutrient-dense foods and make sleep and stress management top priorities.

Emotional Hunger

Emotions often present as a desire to eat. Sadness, loneliness, anxiety and boredom ignite strong feelings that can result in sensations of hunger. Using food as an occasional mood-booster or in a celebratory manner isn’t unusual or unhealthy. However, regularly turning to food to soothe uncomfortable emotions can lead to disordered eating and worsened emotional health.

A restrictive relationship with food can also cause altered hunger sensations. Those who label foods as “good” or “bad” are more likely to binge when they inevitably allow themselves to eat a restricted food. This is known as the “last supper phenomenon,” wherein people convince themselves that this is the last time they will have a certain food before cutting it out, and in doing so, feel compelled to eat a great deal.

Manage your Emotions

Before eating, take a moment to tune into your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. If you don’t notice physical hunger signals, and instead find intense or uncomfortable emotions, it may be a sign that you’re using food to cope. When reaching for a snack, ask yourself, “Am I physically hungry?” If the answer is no, try checking in for uncomfortable emotions or unmet needs, and try to find another way to soothe them before turning to food.  

Emotional eating can be challenging to overcome. If you think you may be struggling, consider seeking professional support from a mental health counselor or registered dietician.

Situational Hunger

Your surroundings have a huge impact on what and how much you eat. Extra-large restaurant servings, constant food advertisements, and your home and workplace can all influence your appetite.  

Researchers at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, which looks into the environmental influence on eating behavior, have made some major findings:

  • People in messy kitchens will eat more than their clean-kitchen counterparts.
  • Junk food kept on the counter can lead to overconsumption. Individuals who keep soda or cereal on their counters weigh 20 to 26 pounds more than those who don’t. The good news? Those with fruit bowls on their counters weigh an average of 13 pounds less.
  • Elementary school students will eat more fruit when it’s cut up than when it’s served whole.
  • People will naturally eat less when portioning out servings than when eating straight from a box or bag.

Create a Habitat for Success

These key findings illustrate a major point: Your surroundings play a large role in shaping your eating decisions. To make the most of your environment, the Food and Brand Lab recommends the CAN approach: Make healthy foods convenient, attractive and normal. This can include decluttering your kitchen, prewashing and slicing produce, batch cooking healthy meals on the weekends, or replacing unhealthy snacks with better on-the-go options in the office and home.


While hunger is a biological need, it often suggests much more. To better understand your own hunger, take a deeper look at your relationship with food and the physical, emotional and environmental factors that may impact your desire to eat.