True Hunger vs. Emotional Appetite

This post is one of my old favorites, and I’m sharing it now because Man! Life in the U.S. is a little stressful right now, no? When emotions are running high, it can be hard to differentiate actual hunger (i.e., I need to eat to nourish my body) from emotional appetite (i.e., It sure would be nice to eat something right now).

Just in case you’re in a similar situation, I’m sharing the smart things I wrote one time when I wasn’t tied up in knots of frustration and concern.


We humans are complicated creatures, and we eat for all kinds of reasons not associated with hunger: happiness, sadness, boredom, excitement, stress, exhaustion, dehydration. Some people are very focused on eating fuel for their workouts. Others (like me!) might simply enjoy the pleasurable taste of their favorite foods.

One of the great gifts of eating paleo is that it’s easier to identify when I’m eating from true hunger or when I’m eating because of an emotional trigger. It’s important for all of us to learn to listen to our bodies’ true hunger signals, so we can say “no” when our brains want us to pander to an emotion-induced craving.

It’s important to remember that food cannot permanently change our emotional state. Sure, eating something might provide a momentary distraction and fleeting pleasure.

But whatever emotion we’re facing – happiness, frustration, anger, fear, worry, excitement, boredom – will continue to exist after we’ve eaten. In many cases, depending on what and how much we eat, we could actually worsen our emotional state. Food itself cannot be a permanent balm for our feelings.

The exception to this rule, of course, is if we’re eating because of true hunger.

So the trick is to learn the difference between emotional appetite and true hunger, and to feed real hunger with paleo foods. Our emotions want our attention, too, so it’s also essential to feed our emotional appetite with something other than food to deal with those tricky feelings.

This kind of mindful eating can be challenging at first. The key is to be as present as possible. Take a breath, consciously slow down, and be honest with yourself about the physical and mental signals your body is sending. Here are some tips to help you learn how to manage emotional eating and true hunger.

If it’s emotional appetite…

Ban all non-paleo foods from your kitchen.

Eventually, it would be wonderful if you learned to circumvent emotional eating. But the first approach is a practical one: Don’t keep non-paleo foods in the house. That way, if your emotions do overwhelm you and trigger a bout of overeating, you’ll only have paleo-friendly foods on hand to consume, thus minimizing the damage (if not the calorie consumption).
Drink a glass of water.

Sometimes our bodies confuse thirst with hunger, and sometimes, we just need a distraction to physically slow us down. Simply drinking a glass of water can help you become present and consciously think about what you’re doing. This short breather can help you determine if you need to eat because you’re truly hungry, or if you just want to eat.

Be stubborn.

This is my specialty! I’ve been described as dedicated and determined, but who are we kidding? I am stubborn. I challenge you to be the same. Remember that you’ve deliberately decided to make your physical and mental health a priority. Be relentless in that commitment. (And then later, you can revel in the accomplishment!)

Set a 20-minute timer.

Twenty minutes is kind of a magic number. When cravings strike, set a timer for 20 minutes and challenge yourself to avoid eating anything until the timer rings. In that 20 minutes, explore your physical and mental state. If you’re truly hungry at the end of the 20 minutes, eat a paleo meal or snack. If you’re not physically hungry, odds are good that by the end of that 20 minutes, your craving will most likely have passed. (The 20-minute rule is also a good one for determining if you really need seconds during
a meal, too. Before hitting the kitchen to refill your plate, wait 20 minutes. That’s how long it takes for the “I’m full” message to reach your brain. If you wait and you’re still unsatisfied, add another small serving to your plate and dig in.)

Set kitchen hours and stick to them.

This mental trick has prevented me from eating an entire jar of coconut butter with a spoon on many occasions. My kitchen hours are 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly snacky, I even say out loud, “It’s 8:00. Kitchen’s closed.” You really can outwit your emotional appetite with this simple declaration.

Enlist an ally.

Misery loves company. Wait! That’s not what I mean! There’s strength in numbers. Make a deal with a family member, neighbor, online friend, or another comrade to commiserate with you. The simple act of talking about your cravings with another human can help you analyze if you’re hungry or trying to eat your feelings.

If you’re truly hungry…

If you determine that you really are hungry, and you’re ready to load up your plate with paleo goodness, here are a few healthy habits to ensure that you feel satisfied at the end of your meal.

Eat at the table.

There is something celebratory and decadent about grabbing a snack straight out of the cabinet or eating a bite of leftovers while your hip props open the refrigerator door. But that’s not the most beneficial approach to feeding your body. One of the best tools you have in your arsenal is your brain. Use it to approach your meals with mindfulness. That means you eat your food from
a plate or bowl. At a table. With utensils. (Unless you’re eating Plantain Nachos, p. 146 or Vietnamese Chicken Salad, p. 162.) You don’t need a formal dining room or heirloom china, but the act of slowing down to eat in a place dedicated to meals puts you in the right mindset to consciously enjoy your food. The simple act of sitting down to a meal sends a message that says, “We’re eating now,” so that all of your senses can play along in the act of nourishing your body.

Eliminate electronics.

Sure, you can type and flip channels with one hand, while shoveling food into your mouth with the other, but that’s a terrible idea. Studies prove that we eat far more when we’re distracted by the television or computer while eating – and afterward, we feel less satisfied. The entertainment on those insidious blue screens doesn’t permit you to turn your full attention to the food you’re eating, and you mindlessly consume extra calories that leave you feeling unsatisfied. Eat first, watch later.

Eat slowly, chew well.

My parents were sticklers for good table manners, so my brother and I were frequently instructed to put our forks down between bites and to chew our food very well – with our mouths closed, naturally. As it turns out, that’s not just good manners, it’s good health, too. Research shows that digestion and satiation are improved when food is well-chewed before being swallowed. And the act of placing your fork on the rim of your plate between bites ensures that you won’t shovel it in too quickly — all the better to savor every bite.

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  • After reading this article I realized that this is a problem I faced with sometimes.

    Thanks for such a great article. I will make sure I keep in mind the points you make now and in the future.

  • candice says:

    I LOVE this. I learned this philosophy through Whole30 and it’s definitely not a one and done deal. I am still faced with it from time to time, but after paleo without SAD food, it’s almost a non-thought most of the time. In fact, my trigger fix tends to go to a cup of warm tea or I just want a nap because my body gets physically tired. I practice breathing techniques so often it becomes automatic when I become aware of anxiety, I immediately “breathe in for 3, hold for 3, breathe our for 4.” It’s almost always a red flag when out of nowhere I get a craving for something specific, it’s an “a-ha” moment that i’m experiencing stress from something.
    It’s kind of why I dislike suggestions to eat certain foods (even ‘healthy’ ones) when you’re feeling a way that isn’t hunger. It’s only treating the symptom and you’re *still* eating your feelings. <3

  • Eli says:

    Thanks for this! I agree that a paleo way of eating (and W30 especially) helps to identify the difference between emotional eating and real hunger. To the list of feelings you wrote in paragraph, I would only add “grief”.