7 Tips to Make Sure You're Hungry, Not Just Bored or Stressed

Heather Logue Fact Checked
man by the water holding a cupcake
© Bruce and Rebecca Meissner / Stocksy United

Snuggled up on the couch? Check. Favorite movie streaming? Check. Yummy snack within arm’s reach? Oh, definitely check.

If you’re someone who can’t turn on the TV without some chips or sweets close by, or you prefer to dip into the hard stuff (ice cream, pretzels, etc.) after a rough day — you aren’t alone if you have foods you desire at certain times, even if you’re not physically hungry.

So, if your body doesn’t need food, what exactly is telling you to go to town on that box of pizza rolls? Here is what’s going on, no judgements, promise.

Eating when you’re not actually hungry

Let’s be real. Most people don’t wait until their stomachs are full-on growling to eat — in fact, there are a variety of things besides true hunger that can make us want to eat (depending on the individual and situation).

Nutrition experts break hunger down into physical hunger and emotional or psychological hunger. The first kind means that your body is responding to the need for nourishment (necessary for survival) and the other kind is based on how you are feeling, your cravings and external stimuli that may be influencing you (not necessary for survival).

“We can experience various ‘hungers’ aside from physical stomach hunger that may lead us to reach for food — for example, eye hunger is when seeing something causes you to want it or emotional hunger is when you eat to soothe yourself,” says Kristi Peterson, a dietitian with UW Medicine Primary Care. “It can be helpful to identify which hunger you are experiencing to better understand why you might be eating when your stomach isn’t rumbling.”

Karen Munger, a dietitian and diabetes educator at the Kidney Stone Center at UW Medical Center and SLU Diabetes Institute, agrees and notes that hunger isn’t only a sensation in the gut, but can also come from hormones and signals from the brain.

“For example, serotonin, which is one of our happy brain chemicals, is manufactured when we eat carbs,” says Munger. “So, when we are talking about craving something salty versus sweet and so on, it tends not to actually be something salty or sweet that you crave — it’s usually a carb food.”

In other words, your body doesn’t need the food to function, it’s just looking for that next feel-good hit.

Knowing the difference between actual hunger versus emotional hunger

According to Peterson, true hunger is something that’s felt physically and can be taken care of by a variety of foods — meaning that, really, many things could satisfy you and make you feel better, not just carbs. Here are a few common signs that Peterson says may indicate that you do, in fact, need calories:

  • A “growling” or feeling of emptiness in the stomach
  • A drop in energy and feelings of tiredness
  • Difficulty focusing or feeling irritated (aka being ‘hangry’)
  • Headaches or even lightheadedness

On the other hand, a craving, which comes along with psychological hunger, is a desire for a certain item — you need that specific cupcake — and can exist without those actual, physical hunger signs.

So, what are the things that can cause emotional hunger?

  • Boredom: This is often the most common reason for psychological hunger. Scrolling through your phone? Grab a chip. Staring at the television? Snack time. It’s easy to shut your brain off when you’re bored and power through a whole bag of munchies.
  • Stress: Comfort food anyone? You can’t help but love those special dishes that make you feel cozy when you’re feeling down.
  • Socializing: If you’re in a group of people eating and drinking, you’re more likely to do the same, even if you’re not hungry.
  • Advertising: The right mix of imagery and sound are bound to intensify anyone’s cravings.
  • Lack of sleep: Not getting enough ZZZ's means you’re more likely to snack.

Are you doomed to a life of cravings?

Realistically, yes — as a human person you’ll always have some cravings. But there are ways to develop a healthier relationship with your hunger.

Take a moment for a mental check-in: Truly think about why you’re eating. Peterson recommends that her patients start with the simple question of, "What do I need?" or "What am I looking for?" If you’ve just had a balanced meal and still have a craving for something else, for example, you’re likely experiencing the effects of psychological hunger.

“When you ask these questions, you're bringing some consciousness to the situation which is especially important when trying to change a habit or routine,” she says. It also invites curiosity, which allows for space to think rather than just having feelings of judgement, guilt or shame.

Try the 20-minute trick: Munger explains that when a craving hits, set a timer for 20 minutes and find something to do that occupies both your mind and your hands — crafts, puzzles or even playing instruments are all great options. If you can focus on whatever you are doing for 20 minutes, you’re most likely experiencing a craving. But if you can’t focus and your brain wanders back to food, it’s probably hunger. Get something to eat!

Understand your temptations: Since people often crave foods that aren’t exactly healthy for them, it’s good to keep those out of your kitchen and have other, healthier options for snacking on hand. (Carrots, nuts, fresh fruit anyone?)

Be ready to combat boredom: Figure out fun things to do next time you’re bored that don’t involve carbohydrates. It could be picking up a book, heading outside for a walk or calling a friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with.

Be a mindful eater: “Sometimes we eat beyond full because we are not satisfied, but sometimes that lack of satisfaction is because we did not take the time to enjoy our food,” says Munger.

Use all your senses: Look at your food and appreciate the colors and textures. Take the time to smell your food since much of the taste is wrapped up in the aroma. Feel your food in your mouth and think about the different flavors.

Eat slowly: It takes about 20 minutes for fullness signals to travel from the gut to the brain, so it’s important to eat slowly and stop when you’re full. Also, don’t multitask when you’re eating — focus on the delicious task at hand.

Drink a glass of water: Sometimes you can mistake being thirsty for being hungry.

Listening to your body = healthy

Peterson explains that eating when you’re not hungry could contribute to unwanted weight gain and increase fluctuations in blood sugar levels. And if you ignore your body’s cues (for example: skipping or delaying meals), you’re likely to increase the chances of overeating or snacking on less nutrient-dense foods later, which can lead to bloating, discomfort and feelings of tiredness after meals.

“Just because we skip a meal doesn't mean our physical need for those calories disappears, so what often happens is that hunger feels more challenging to satisfy or control as more time passes,” says Peterson. “I find people are usually better at making decisions around eating when they are ready to eat but not starving.”

Munger suggests creating a simple schedule to ensure you’re eating regular meals.

“Once a schedule is imposed you eat at a time that the schedule allows,” she says. “I have talked to people that don’t eat breakfast only because that is what their family did. Overriding hunger cues can be learned behavior."

So, in the end, what seems to be the key to understanding hunger cues? Listening to your body. Though seemingly obvious, it’s important to make a conscious effort to take a look at your cravings and understand where they are coming from: your belly — or your brain.