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How to Tell the Difference Between Emotional and Physical Hunger

Have you ever had the urge to eat something you didn't plan to eat, and wondered if you just didn't plan enough food? OR could it be that this urge is actually an emotional need begging for an answer? Listen in as Marchelle and I decode the difference, and help you discover emotional eats that you might not even be recognizing!

Some of this weeks episode highlights are:

10:08 Here's another form of emotional eating that can sometimes happen. So let's say that one of the ways that you and your husband connect is with a couple of glasses of wine every night. You’re wanting connection. That's an emotional need and drinking the wine with your husband is essentially emotional eating, or in this case, emotional drinking in disguise. I don't want any of us to underestimate the power of this need for belonging, because it is hardwired into us because as we were evolving, we evolved in tribes and clans and we needed to be with other people in order to survive. So we needed to have that sense of community.

18:54 Many of us are eating just to take a break. The idea of actually just sitting and doing nothing is sort of foreign to us. We always have to be doing something. And because if we're not doing something, we're judging ourselves as being lazy. And so instead of just sitting and taking a break, we eat, so we're eating to relax.

28:01 So much of what we're doing is we're denying our emotional needs and we're trying to end up satisfying them in some other way, with food or alcohol or both. We have to learn how to answer these emotional needs without food constantly. That's the secret to lasting weight loss, right? We have to become aware of all of the self judgment that goes on in our heads and correct that thinking. We have to notice how often we eat in order to belong or to avoid what we think is going to be the judgment of other people. We have to learn how to have fun without having food or alcohol be the primary way we do it.

--- Full Raw Transcription Below ---

The Graphic Angela references is included at the end of this blog

Dr. Angela Zechmann (00:00):

You are listening to the Keep The Weight Off podcast with Dr. Angela, episode number 36.

Introduction (00:07)

Welcome to The Keep The Weight Off podcast, where we bust all the dieting myths and discover not just how to lose weight, but more importantly, how to keep it off. We go way beyond the food and we use science and psychology to give you strategies that work. And now your host, Dr. Angela Zechmann.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (00:27):

Alright. Hello friends, and welcome back. So I wanted this week follow up on our episode last week, because there's actually more to the story. Last week, we talked about the importance of planning ahead, because we want to put your prefrontal cortex or your executive brain in charge of your food decisions, right? We don't want your primitive brain making food decisions. So I talked about that last week. So if you did not listen to last week's podcast, which is episode number 35, go back and listen to that one first and then come back to this one, because it's going to give you some fundamental information there. So here's what happens for people. Let's say that you listened to the podcast last week and you have all your food planned for the day. It's all ready to go. And let's say even that you're one of those real eight plus weight loss students, and you have all your meals prepped and ready to go.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (01:35):

So everything has been weighed and measured, and it's all in containers in the refrigerator or the freezer or both. And you do all this work and you breathe this big sigh of relief, because now you don't even have to think about your food for an entire week, no decisions to make - none! Your executive brain has planned it all to the end. You know that all you have to do is eat this food at the right times, and there's going to be no question that you're going to get healthy and you're going to lose weight. And I want to just say, doesn't that just sound really awesome? Like, have it all planned and ready to go… except life isn't really that simple Is it very frequently? We end up with these urges. Okay. And so the pre-planning is the first step. So that's what we talked about last week.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (02:36):

What we're going to talk about this week is what happens when you have everything preplanned. So let's say you get an urge to eat something that's not on your pre-determined plan. And you're not really sure - is this hunger? Did I not prep enough food? Do I need more calories? Or is this some sort of emotional need that's presenting itself as a desire to eat? And so, as we talked last week, this is the beauty of pre-planning. It allows you to catch yourself when you're tempted to eat for emotional reasons. And it's going to give you a chance to pause and think things through. Okay. So I'm going to teach you something that I learned from Susan Albert, who is an eating disorders expert about how to tell the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger. She actually has developed a really beautiful diagram and we'll put a link to this diagram in the show notes.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (03:45):

And we have this diagram up all over our office and we give a copy of it to all of our new patients. Basically, it's like a flow sheet and it's a flow sheet that helps you determine whether this urge to eat that you have is actually physical hunger or whether it's an emotional need. Okay? So let's talk about the difference. So for physical hunger, here are the signs of physical hunger. The first thing you're going to notice is that your stomach is growling and your energy is low. You're able to consider options for what to eat. It doesn't feel like a dire emergency. The hunger has grown gradually. It's been some time since you last ate - several hours, at least. And when you eat food, it's satisfies you. So those are the signs of physical hunger. Now, here are some signs of emotional hunger.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (04:50):

You may have just eaten. There are no physical cues. For example, your stomach is quiet and you may or may not feel fatigued. Sometimes emotional hunger is actually fatigue. So that can be a little bit tricky sometimes, but oftentimes you're craving something really specific like chocolate or chips or ice cream, eating food seems like the best, or maybe even the only option for you. And you're wandering around your kitchen. You might be searching for something. This used to happen to me. I had one of those walk-in pantries and I would just walk in there and I'd just be like, oh, I need something to eat. And when you do eat, food does not satisfy you. So that's emotional hunger. Now I used used to work with an eating disorder specialist myself, and she always told me, put your hand on your stomach.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (05:51):

And if there's any doubt about whether this is a physical or emotional hunger, then it's not physical. She said she would compare it to having an orgasm. She'd say if there's any doubt, it didn't happen. So the same is true with physical hunger. If there's any doubt, it's not physical hunger, it's emotional hunger. Okay. So, so I just wanted to give you those cues or those clues to the differences between physical and emotional hunger. And again, you're not going to know for sure, unless you have all of your meals planed ahead, because if you're just grabbing stuff on the run, you're just, you're just letting your primitive brain make food decisions for you. And you're not going to be able to know when you are actually emotionally hungry. Okay? Most of us are emotional eating often. And many times we do recognize exactly what's going on because it usually happens at night.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (07:00):

We did a whole podcast about eating at night in the past. So listen to that. Usually it's when we're winding down from our days, or, and oftentimes we're either sitting on the couch in front of the TV or we're in bed and we're eating chips or ice cream or candy or something like that. And those are some obvious times and we're working on this and we're recognizing what's going on, but there are other times when we're eating for emotional reasons and we don't even recognize it as emotional eating at all. So sometimes our emotional eating can be more subtle. And so that's what I wanted to talk about because it's really important to discern exactly what's going on in our brains and what our real needs are. So for example, let's say that you have a delicious spinach and chicken salad with avocado and an amazing vinaigrette dressing.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (07:59):

It's all ready to go for lunch. Doesn't that sound wonderful, like, ah, delicious. Right? But maybe what happened to you is what happened to one of our clients in Journey Beyond Weight Loss. She wrote this this week. She said, I work in an office all week that brought in lunch every single day, Monday sub sandwiches and chips. My favorite Tuesday pizza, Wednesday, Olive Garden, Thursday, barbecue, brownies, cookies, Dunkin donuts. She said it was all there. And so let's say that this is you. Somebody has brought in food and you really want to join in. You don't want to eat your salad because you don't want to feel left out. Okay. This is emotional eating, the emotion that you're trying to avoid. Is that feeling of being left out, or maybe there's a concern that others are going to judge you for eating your salad and not eating the special office lunch. So does that make sense now, Marchelle? This never happens in our office of course, because well, once in a while it does we'll order out once in a while. Right?

Marchelle (09:22):

Right. Yeah. Back when, when I worked in other clinics, we used to have a lot of drug rep lunches and they would bring boots like that. And it was very hard to say no, because they were doing it as a treat and really, no matter, even if I had already brought lunch, which would have usually been a salad or something like that, I definitely just left that for the next day. And I would just eat, you know, what was brought just because it's hard for me to say no.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (10:00):

Exactly! So you weren’t saying no, because it was free, not because you were feeling left out?

Marchelle (10:06):

Because it was free.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (10:08):

Yeah. So that's kind of, there's a sense of financial security that you're trying to, trying to feel there. Here's another form of emotional eating that can sometimes happen. So let's say that one of the ways that you and your husband connect is with a couple of glasses of wine every night. So your wanting connection. So that's an emotional need and drinking the wine with your husband is essentially emotional eating or in this case, emotional drinking in disguise. So connection is one of the ways that we eat eat for connection, or let's say that you're having dinner out with friends and it's a really big deal, which restaurant you go to because the food matters. This is actually emotional eating too, because you're not necessarily eating to nourish your body. You're eating for entertainment and for connection with your friends.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (11:11):

Okay. And then let's say that you're out with your friends and someone orders an appetizer, and you really want to eat some of that appetizer, but she didn't plan to eat it. This is an emotional need, again, a need for a belonging or a need to avoid judgment, something like that. So those are, those are the, a lot of the ways that our brains kind of ask us to eat. And the cue is really an emotional cue and not a physical cue. I do want to interject something really important here. I don't want any of us to underestimate the power of this need for belonging, because it is hardwired into us because as we were evolving, we evolved in tribes and clans and we needed to be with other people in order to survive. So we needed to have that sense of community.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (12:15):

And that sense of belonging … being alone meant certain death from either predators or enemies. So animal predators or human enemies. So we need to be connected to other people, and we need to feel a sense of belonging. And it shows itself to us in this desire to eat what everyone else is eating. Unfortunately, in our current food environment, if we eat what everyone else is eating, we're going to continue to eat toxic foods in large amounts. So I just want to make this present and acknowledge that this is hard. This is really hard to do because it's like two parts of our brain are fighting against each other. So sometimes when we decide to give up emotional eating, we're trying to do something that we're hard, wired not to want to do, and it's difficult. And so that's why it's so important to make sure that you have a group of people who understand and a community of people who get you, and this is what we have in our journey beyond weight loss membership. All right. So do you have any, anything you want to say Marchelle does any of this?

Marchelle (13:35):

Yeah, just for one, it just really blows my mind that these foods that have absolutely no nutritional value we want so bad. I know. And especially when we're feeling something or we're not doing something or we need to feel something and it's so crazy how these are so closely connected and we have so many times, but yeah. I just really listening to you talk about this. Just yeah. It's just a trip.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (14:08):

Yeah. Well here are some other examples of what I would consider to be subtle emotional eating. So let's say you're driving home from work. This used to happen to you all the time. Marchelle, and you would stop at a convenience store for chips or cookies or whatever to eat on the way home. That's what I remember you telling me, is that correct?

Marchelle (14:29):

Yeah. So, because I live about 25 minutes out of town and be tired after work and I didn't want the boredom of driving home, you know, that 35 minutes. So I would pop in, you know, I would get off, I had the same convenience store that I would go to every day and I would have like these three same snacks I would get. And they were all definitely not healthy, but they would get me through the drive because they would distract me, you know, and I would listen to some kind of podcast or whatever. And it was just to just drive me from, you know, the, the boringness of driving home for this 25 30 minutes. Yeah. And I was realizing like how bad? I mean, I was feeling so crappy all the time. And I know it was just because I was just doing that every day and it just became such a routine. And so I really had to really break that break that snacking habit. Yeah.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (15:25):

So for you, the emotion you were trying to avoid was boredom on the drive home. I think for me when I'm coming home from work, sometimes it's like, there's, there's self judgment going on in my head about what things I did right. At work or what things I didn't do right. At work. And did I get, you know, did I get all my, all my work done and is it all good enough? And, you know, there's all of this stuff going on in my head all the time about whether it's good enough or not. And so, you know, so trying to avoid those kinds of emotions, I think is really common for people as well. So cause eating will distract you from, from that sort of looping that goes on in your brain because you're focused on the pleasure of the food that you're eating.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (16:12):

So that's a subtle, you know, that's really subtle. You don't really recognize that that's what's going on now. Of course, if you recognized, if I had recognized what was going on, I could work on that tendency to judge myself, right? Like maybe that's not healthy for me to be judging myself like this all the time as being inadequate or not doing it right. Or whatever, because those thoughts of self judgment are actually optional. I don't have to think those thoughts. And again, you know, this is more of the work that we do in the journey beyond weight loss membership, we really working at figuring out what are these thought loops that are going on in our head that are causing us to feel so bad that we feel the need to eat our way through them. Right. here's another example of emotional eating. Let's say that it's three o'clock in the afternoon.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (17:07):

This is an example that James Clear talked about in his book, Atomic Habits. And he said every day at three o'clock in the afternoon, he needed a break. And so he would go to the cafeteria and he would get himself a cookie, and then he would go and he would sit down with one of his colleagues and they just both sit and have cookies together at three o'clock in the afternoon. And then they'd go back to work after that. So it's like having a little snack and then going to finish your work. That's actually emotional eating, or let's say, you decide I'm going to get this job done. And then I'm going to have my snack. So that's reward eating. So that's emotional eating. Okay. I find that when I'm working at home, I catch myself in emotional eating almost every day because the kitchen is right there.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (18:01):

So I'll be working on a project and I'll get up to take a break. And almost without thinking I'm over at the jar of nuts. Now, you would think that I would take that jar of nuts and put them in the pantry, you know, inside a cupboard so that I would actually have to pull them out. But you know, these habits, they just die hard. And I will tell myself, this is a healthy snack. It's not a problem, but the truth is it's emotional eating because I don't need that food. I'm not physically hungry. And it's a distraction from the focus and concentration that's required to work on my project. Wouldn't it be so much better for me if I would just get up and go take a walk outside or something else that would distract me for a little while and, you know, give me a break from all of that focus and concentration.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (18:54):

So many of us are eating just to take a break. So the idea of actually just sitting and doing nothing is sort of foreign to us. We always have to be doing something. And because if we're not doing something, we're judging ourselves as being lazy. And so instead of just sitting and taking a break, we eat, so we're eating to relax and I've talked to lots and lots of patients who told me it's the only time that I have to myself is that time that I'm eating. So this is actually emotional eating. Okay. Does that make sense?

Marchelle (19:35):


Dr. Angela Zechmann (19:36):

Yeah. Do you have - do you have any other ways that you've noticed that we might be engaging in subtle emotional eating?

Marchelle (19:45):

Yes. So I had some stuff to prepare that I was going to say about, you know, travel, eating, and drinking and celebrations and all that. But I had this experience today that I wanted to share with you guys. So pretty late last night, I got a phone call, a pretty devastating phone call from my mother that one of my close relatives and passed away. And, and it was pretty late at night. So I don't think I really processed it. I just, I fell asleep. I got up this morning and I had a quick errand to run, I did that. I went right to burger king through the drive-through cause I was going to get some French toast sticks with some syrup because I felt like I needed some kind of feel good. And, and I have not, I mean, this was just like, cause I just did the, you know, the sugar and flour detox and done really well.

Marchelle (20:41):

And so it's just not something that, you know, I have been doing as a habit and they were closed luckily because I live in a small town and they were closed right through, blocked off and I was so resentful. So then I went down to McDonald's and it was so full there that I was like, no, forget it. I'm not going to wait. So then as I was driving down the street, I'm like, okay, donuts, because I don't know if anybody knows me. They know that donuts are donuts. I was so determined to get donuts. So I go down to this local donut shop and they didn't have the donuts I want it. So I got back in my car and I went to Safeway and I got to the donut place there. And I was looking at the donuts and something like clicked inside my head.

Marchelle (21:28):

Like, what am I, what am I doing? I was like a, like a crack addict trying to find a fix. I mean, I went to four different places looking for something to satisfy me. And I realized that it was because I was feeling these negative emotions. I wanted to feel better. And it's so deep that I just, in the moment I didn't, I forgot everything. Everything went out the window of my sugar and flour detoxing. Everything I knew went out the window and I was on a mission to make myself feel better. And for me, Angela, you know, when, when this happens, you got to sit for a minute in your feelings and label them. Yeah. And then, you know, so I, I walked out of that store and I didn't buy any of that stuff. And I got in my car and went home and I still have not, I did not give into it.

Marchelle (22:27):

And that's one of the first times, cause Angela, you know, me and you know, I hadn't talked to you about this all the time. Like I really, really suffer from this, you know, these emotional triggers. So is one of the very first times I, I was able to walk away and just realize, you know, what, what I was doing. And I know when I played the tape out, I know. And I'm sure all of you guys know what happens in the end and what happens in the end when you do that is regret. Yeah. And then you feel like crap and you feel bad about yourself and then there's all that kind of negative talk. So so yeah, that's, that's just the experience I had this morning and that's a huge win.

Dr. Angela Zechmann

That's huge congratulations!


Man, but it was an experience. I mainly was late to do the podcast this morning. Yeah. I I didn't plan on going to four different stores looking for sugar. I got a text saying I'm running late, I'm running errands. I'm running late.

Marchelle (23:37):

I know. I'm funny. I know. And I didn't even, I didn't even recognize it Angela until I got home and I just like had to sit for a second and just kind of like think back like, wow, what just happened?

Dr. Angela Zechmann

Yeah. So weird.


And so, yeah, like I said, I'm really happy. I got to share that with you guys and you know, and I'm not feeling great emotions right now. You know, the emotions I have, they suck, you know, I'm angry. You know, I'm heartbroken and I do not like feeling these feelings and but I also know that sugar is not going to do any good. It's not, it's not going to take those away. Right. or, you know, it's not going to change anything. And then I'm just going to feel extra crappy after I do it.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (24:25):

It will give you a five minute relief and then you end up feeling worse. So, and it's like, it's like, when you lose somebody you love like, yeah, you're going to feel sad. You're going to feel grief. It's normal. Like, I don't know why we ever got this idea that we shouldn't feel negative emotion, you know? Like, yeah, you should feel that it's fine. It's normal.

Marchelle (24:56):

I think like if, I think way back and like, I dig really deep. I feel like, I don't know if any of you were given a pacifier when you're…

Dr. Angela Zechmann (25:06):

Most babies

Marchelle (25:07):

Are. Yeah. Okay. And I feel like at some point, you know, sugar became that pacifier for anything, any kind of emotion that I was feeling, you know, mom pops the pacifier in your mouth. If you start to cry, like, okay, you could be quiet, be quiet, you know, you're fine. You're fine. And I just feel like that carried over into, you know, my childhood with you know, with candy. And then, you know, carried over into my adult life with beer and wine. So, you know, so it's always been this pacifier of, of, of any kind of negative, anything, any kind of negative emotions I feel. And that's really like deep work that I'm having to do. And it's taken a long time for me to even recognize that that's what's going on. So, I mean, it just goes way back for me. And and so I don't know if anybody else, you know, can relate to this, but oh yeah. It takes a lot of work to recognize it and to identify it because emotions are, emotions are not fun to deal with.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (26:13):

Yeah. Well, and sometimes it's not just, it's not just negative. Emotions is positive emotions, you know, it's that sense of celebration or that, that, you know, I'm going on a vacay, you know, and I want to have fun and, and I'm going to use food and alcohol as my way of having fun. So that's, that's emotional eating too, you know,

Marchelle (26:34):

Definitely. So across the board on that, I'm all the way from celebration to, you know distraction to fulfilling or, you know, getting out of negative emotions. I mean, I'm, I'm all across the board. I definitely use… mine is sugar. I mean, in many different forms.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (26:55):

Well, and, and you know, the thing I don't want, …. I’m not saying that it's, you should never, ever eat for emotional reasons. I don't want to give anybody that impression either. I'm not saying that if it's my birthday, I'm not going to eat a piece of cake to celebrate my birthday. Right. I'm just saying, you know, it, sometimes on Friday or Saturday nights, I'll have a cocktail or a glass of wine as a way of sort of winding down and celebrating. And, you know, I already told you, like, I catch myself all the time with the nuts. So my saying that if you eat for emotional reasons that you're not going to lose weight and that you're failing and all that. No, no, no, no. Of course I'm not saying that. But what I am saying is that if we do what Marchelle is doing here, and we become much, much, more aware of our emotional eating and we start to learn how to satisfy our emotional needs without denying them.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (28:01):

I mean, so much of what we're doing is we're denying our emotional needs and we're trying to end up satisfying them in some other way, with food or alcohol or both. We have to learn how to answer these emotional needs without food constantly. That's the secret to lasting weight loss, right? We have to become aware of all of the self judgment that goes on in our heads and correct that thinking we have to notice how often we eat in order to belong or to avoid what we think is going to be the judgment of other people. We have to learn how to have fun without having food or alcohol be the primary way we do it. Okay. So those are the skills that we build on and we work on over time. Never perfect perfection is not necessary here, but just always getting better and butter and butter at this all the time.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (29:03):

Because as we learn how to pay attention to our own emotional needs and how to stop using food or alcohol as a band-aid, we come to discover who we really are, right? What you're discovering Marchelle, as you are not eating, you're allowing yourself to feel what you're naturally going to feel. You get to know yourself better, right? Right. You get to know who you really are better and you get to love yourself more. That's the beauty of all of this is that we come to discover who we really are and how awesome we really are and what it means to be a human being who is navigating in the world, feeling different things at different times. And we get to discover what it means to have a really healthy, vibrant body at the same time. And that's what we do. If you do this weight loss journey, well, you are going to come to know and love yourself so much more.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (30:09):

And that's what we're all about. So we have a lot more to say about all of this in our membership. And we really give you the tools that you need to work through this. So I would encourage you to join us if you are interested, just go to, or you can download the free course and learn that way as well. And Marcel again, I'm super, I mean, I'm, I'm right there with you. As you're struggling with grief and sadness, and it's just, it's tough and it's nice to have other people that are there supporting you too. So is there anything else that you wanted to say or share?

Marchelle (30:54):

No, thank you. I just wanted to, you know, give the message that, you know, anybody's listening to this it takes a lot of time. You got to give yourself a lot of time, learn a different way and you don't do it just right. Just not to give up. Yeah.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (31:13):

Yeah. You can't give up

Marchelle (31:17):

Or give up.

Dr. Angela Zechmann (31:18):

Yeah. Yeah. Awesome. All right. Great. So we will see everybody next week and again just keep loving yourself through this and appreciate all of the emotions that you're feeling and we'll see you next time. Take care everybody. Bye-Bye

Closing (31:35):

Hey, if you really want to lose weight and keep it off for good, your next step is to sign up for Dr. Angela's free weight loss course, where you're going to learn everything you need to get started on your weight loss journey, the right way. Just head over to to sign up. Also, it would be awesome if you could take a few moments and write a review on iTunes. Thanks!

Dr. Angela



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