While you might think hunger is a fairly straight forward feeling, there’s a big difference between the craving you have when you’re ploughing through a packet of chips mid-Netflix binge and that post-run longing for a feed. The former is psychological hunger and the latter is physical hunger. But what is the difference and why is it so important to determine which one you’re feeling?


What is physical hunger? 

Physical hunger is when your stomach is empty and your brain signals that it needs fuel by initiating thoughts about food. You might get that “rumbling” in your gut as well as feelings of irritability, fatigue and tanking concentration. When you’re physically hungry any food will satisfy you and despite how it sounds, it’s actually a good thing! Feeling your hunger cues is important and a great way to know If you are consuming adequate food or not.


What is psychological hunger?

Psychological hunger is when we feel the urge to eat thanks to our emotions, also known as emotional eating. It’s often driven by boredom, stress, sadness or loneliness and afterwards, you might feel regret or guilt. In these moments you’re more likely to reach for discretionary foods like ice cream, chocolate, and chips, for example, as these make us “feel good”. Psychological hunger can lead to bingeing behaviour as you’re more likely to ignore your fullness cues.


Ok… So how do I figure out the difference between physical hunger and psychological hunger? 

Here are some key differences between the two and how to tell if you’re actually hungry.

Physical Hunger

  • Increases gradually
  • You can wait to eat but need to soon
  • It comes in response to a sensation in your body such as a rumbling stomach
  • It could be satisfied by eating a piece of fruit
  • It’s followed by a deliberate choice to eat with awareness
  • A sense of satisfaction after eating rather than guilt


Psychological Hunger

  • Comes on suddenly
  • You want a particular type of food, rarely an apple
  • You need food with a sense of urgency
  • In response to an emotion such as boredom, stress, sadness or loneliness
  • An impulse choice eaten quickly without much thought
  • You still want more or a different type of food afterwards
  • Followed by feelings of guilt or regret


The test

Still struggling to figure it out? Next time you’re wondering whether your hunger is physical or phycological try the apple test. Ask yourself if you would still be hungry if all that was available was an apple. If the answer is yes then you are most likely feeling physical hunger, if not you may be acting on an emotional trigger and it may be beneficial to take some time to reflect on what you are feeling in that moment before tucking into a treat. Want more like this? Read: everything you need to know about volume eating.