Head Hunger vs. Body Hunger: Recognizing Stress Eating

head hunger v body hunger

In honor of National Nutrition Month, I felt propelled to offer some insight on stress eating and the difference between head hunger (emotional) and body hunger (physical). Food plays such a vital role in our lives. When you think about it, society reinforces its importance through traditions and events like holidays, funerals, and birthdays where people gather and enjoy meals together. We may reward good behavior in children with a special treat like a cookie or piece of candy. While we understand that food is a necessity and recognizing body hunger is important, we also need to build awareness of head (or emotional) hunger and our tendency to self-soothe and numb ourselves with food.

What is Head Hunger?

Head hunger, or stress eating, is when you eat when emotions are running high or even when you are bored. Unlike physical hunger, head hunger generally occurs at the unconscious level and can be impulsive. To gain awareness of your eating patterns, reflect on the following questions. Do you have a tendency to reach for food, especially sweet, salty, or high fat food, when you are feeling overwhelmed or emotionally/physically stressed? Does this urge come on suddenly? Do you feel immediate gratification followed by a strong sense of guilt? Do you frequently feel unsatisfied with your food, like the hunger has not been quenched, despite consuming large amounts of food? If you answered yes to these questions, you may be stuck in an unhealthy stress eating cycle due to head hunger.

The Stress Eating Cycle

An unhealthy stress eating cycle starts with a stressful event followed by impulsive eating which provides a quick release of cortisol and insulin into the body. Interestingly, these two chemicals stimulates the appetite as well as a person’s cravings for comfort foods, specifically sweet, salty, or high fat food. After experiencing a high stress situation, you may feel like you are starving. This is a head (emotional) hunger response and should not be confused with body hunger. You enjoy these comfort foods so much that you may overindulge which leads to increased feelings of guilt. Your stress hormones spike again and before you know it, you are reaching for the box of cookies or a tub of ice cream and the cycle repeats itself.

Contributing Factors to Stress Eating

Factors that contribute to head hunger and stress eating include:

  • lack of awareness in why you are eating and what you are eating
  • not recognizing the difference between body and head hunger
  • using food as your only source of pleasure
  • an inability to tolerate difficult emotions
  • a dislike for your body
  • not paying attention to body hunger when it communicates with you

By ignoring signs of true body hunger, for example when we are too busy to eat, we set ourselves up for stress eating and overeating unhealthy foods.

How to Break the Stress Eating Cycle

Now that you understand the link between your emotions and stress eating, you are better equipped to identify what is going on with your eating patterns and consider ways to break the cycle. My first recommendation is to start a food journal to gain awareness of your relationship with food. By tracking your food preferences, the emotions you experience before and after eating, and identifying current life stressors and emotional triggers, you can gain objectivity in your eating patterns. I would encourage using mindfulness when eating which is simply to slow down your eating and pay close attention to how your food tastes, smells, feels (texture), sounds, and looks. Through mindful eating, you give your brain time to process the sensation of being full which can prevent overeating, and you learn a new appreciation for the food you eat. Once you acknowledge your true relationship with food, you can begin to utilize other coping mechanisms to address difficult emotions in your life.


Addressing your relationship with food and how your emotions play a part in your eating pattern is challenging. It is never easy to break a bad habit especially when food comforts us in the best and worst of times. Correcting your stress eating cycle will take an active effort on your part; however, through self-reflection and alternative coping mechanisms like mindfulness, you can learn to have a healthier relationship with food. As Richard Simmons, fitness guru, cautions, we need to “stop trying to find something in food to make us feel better.” Medicating ourselves with food is not the answer to emotional hunger. If you need help resolving underlying emotional issues that impact your eating pattern, please seek the support of a mental health counselor.