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Is lockdown causing you to comfort or stress eat?

Jul 14, 2020

If you feel that your appetite or hunger often overwhelms you and results in you overeating or making bad food choices, then the following tips might help you to control your cravings. Firstly, you need to understand the difference between real hunger (grumbling stomach) and mouth hunger (emotional hunger). Identifying your common hunger is important, as the strategies to combat them may be different.

The different between real physical hunger and emotional hunger

I call real hunger, stomach hunger, and emotional hunger, mouth hunger. Some people struggle to differentiate between the two. When I ask them why they ate something inappropriate they say, “because it tastes nice” or “they just felt like it”.

The following will hopefully help you to differentiate between the two types of hunger.

  • Real stomach hunger usually develops slowly inside you – you gradually start to realise that you are receiving hunger signals from your body. Emotional hunger can occur at any time and can suddenly appear, usually in conjunction with an emotion. So even straight after eating a full meal, you can experience emotional hunger.
  • If you are physically hungry, you will eat anything and usually will choose whatever food is at hand or what you consider healthy. However, emotional hunger normally involves needing to eat a certain food or type of food – usually sugary and/or fatty.
  • If you are eating for real hunger, you will usually be able to stop when you feel physically full, whereas emotional hunger can cause you to overeat and result in you feeling overly full when you finally stop eating. The reason why you can keep eating and eating for emotional hunger, and never feel full, is that food cannot satisfy emotions. You don’t feel better, so you keep eating hoping you will feel better.
  • You will generally never feel guilty for eating for physical hunger reasons whereas emotional hunger often results in feelings of guilt and remorse. You feel regret for either eating too much or for eating the wrong food or both. These emotions for many of us, are easier to live with, than the initial emotions, such as depression, loneliness, feeling overwhelmed or anger.
  • You should feel like you have a certain amount of control over your physical hunger and can delay gratifying it if necessary. However, emotional hunger often feels overwhelming and that you can’t control it and that it needs to be satisfied instantly.

Karen Protheroe


Karen is a registered dietitian and author of numerous books on nutrition. She also runs a private practice in Stellenbosch. Read more about Karen here.

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