A Great Addition to the Obesity Prevention Toolbox

Big E 2011

In her book, Constant Craving, Doreen Virtue discussed in great detail the differences between physical hunger and emotional hunger. Why is this important? Because emotional neediness is one of the things that can lead a child or adult to food addiction.

Another thing that leads to food addiction is the lack of coping skills, to the point where a person is so incapable of dealing with the stresses of life that eating seems to be the perfect answer to all problems. Awareness of the origin of hunger is a big advantage.

A person who can give two minutes’ thought to the “eat, eat, eat” impulse is in a very good position to curb that impulse, and perhaps to prevent the slide into the full-blown addiction. Learning the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger is a major-league coping skill.

The first thing Virtue points out is that emotional hunger is apt to descend suddenly, while physical hunger makes itself known more gradually. And if the desire to eat is focused on one particular food, if that food contains sugar, fat, salt or carbs, chances are the hunger is emotional. Physical hunger is eager to accept nutrition, not just sensation.

Emotional hunger often contains a strong element of urgency, while physical hunger (except in very extreme conditions) can be delayed by patience or distraction. Virtue writes:

Emotional hunger […] is paired with an upsetting emotion. Your boss yelled at you. Your child is in trouble at school. Your spouse is in a bad mood. Emotional hunger occurs in conjunction with an upsetting situation.
Physical hunger […] occurs out of physical need. Physical hunger occurs because it has been four or five hours since your last meal. You may experience light-headedness or low energy if overly hungry.

Physical hunger is related to choices, not only the conscious choice of suitable food, but the deliberate choice to only finish half of it, or to not go for a second helping. But emotional hunger often has a robotic quality. It is, Virtue says, either absent-minded or automatic. All of a sudden you look around and wonder what happened to that bag of chips that you ate last night, hardly even being aware of it.

Emotional eating is associated with so much inner turmoil that it blocks out the body’s ability to convey the message: “That’s enough.” Trying to cover up psychic pain is such a demanding activity that it manages to stifle the signals the body is trying to send carrying the news, “I’m full.”

This sign is important to watch out for:

Emotional hunger […] feels guilty about eating. The paradox of emotional overeating is that the person eats to feel better and ends up beating him/her self for eating cookies, cakes, or cheeseburgers. She/he promises atonements to him/her self (‘I’ll start my diet tomorrow.’)

Physical hunger […] realizes eating is necessary. When the intent behind eating is based in physical hunger, there is no guilt or shame. The person realizes that eating food, like breathing oxygen, is a necessary behavior.

A person who learns these signs and pays attention to them makes a wonderful addition to her or his coping-skills toolbox.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Constant Craving,” Amazon.com
Image by Rusty Clark.

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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