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Head Hunger: How Does it Make Weight Loss Difficult?

Head hunger can be a difficult barrier to overcome in weight loss. This article will explain head hunger and how it differs from other types of hunger.

Strategies are presented to connect with physical hunger and fullness cues to rid yourself of emotional eating.

A renewed connection with your body’s signals supports weight loss and a healthier relationship with food!

*Note the terms head hunger and emotional hunger are used interchangeably throughout this article. This is also true for belly and physical hunger.

Barriers to Weight Loss
Head hunger can make weight loss a frustrating process!

Types of Hunger

Below are 4 different types of hunger:

  1. Physical
  2. Head
  3. Practical
  4. External
Types of Hunger Infographic; physical, head, practical, extermal

1. Physical

Physical hunger, or “belly hunger” is your body’s request for food.

It involves physical signs of hunger which may include stomach growling, hunger pangs, headache, and feeling lightheaded.

Man holding abdomen thinking about food.
Belly hunger is simply your body’s request for food.

2. Head

Head hunger, or emotional hunger, is a psychological hunger that stems from emotions rather than a physical need for nourishment.

3. Practical

We can’t always let our hunger and fullness cues guide our eating. Schedules and commitments might require us to eat at specific times.

This forces us to be flexible in our approach to meals and snacks.

Man and woman sitting on a bench eating take out.
Our schedules often dictate when we eat.

4. External

External or environmental hunger is the sensation of feeling hungry due to our surroundings.

Examples of this may be the sight or smell of food, the presence of others eating, or being in situations that involve food.

Head Hunger & Weight Loss

Understanding head hunger is crucial for addressing the root causes of overeating that contribute to excess weight.

This emotional response triggers an urgency to eat and involves craving specific foods.

Typical foods sought out by head hunger are foods that are not conducive to weight loss (chips, cookies, fast food, etc.).

An array of junk foods that are typical of head hunger.
Head hunger triggers cravings.

While it is certainly healthy and normal to eat for emotional reasons at times, turning to food regularly can lead to weight gain and associated health issues.

Using food to self-soothe, distract, or entertain makes losing weight challenging!

Emotions that Trigger Head Hunger

Below are some of the most common triggers for head hunger:

  1. Stress
  2. Anxiety
  3. Anger
  4. Sadness
  5. Loneliness
  6. Boredom
Head Hunger- eggs expressing different emotions
Emotions can drive our food choices.

Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger

A key ingredient to successful weight loss is learning to differentiate between emotional/head hunger and physical/belly hunger.

Characteristics of Emotional/Head Hunger

  1. Comes on quickly
  2. Presents with a sense of urgency
  3. Causes a craving for 1-2 specific foods
  4. Eating does not typically satisfy this type of hunger
Head Hunger; Girl emotional eating a donut
Head hunger can make us crave a specific food.

Characteristics of Physical/Belly Hunger

  1. Hunger comes on gradually
  2. Physical symptoms such as stomach growling, headache, and lack of energy
  3. Allows you to choose from a variety of foods that will nourish your body
  4. Eating food leads to a feeling of satisfaction and/or fullness
Head Hunger Infographic comparing head and belly or physical hunger

Appetite vs. Hunger

Appetite and hunger are two different sensations. Hunger is a physical need for food, while appetite is a psychological desire to eat.

Hunger is the body’s response to a physical drive for nourishment. It is accompanied by physical symptoms, such as a growling stomach, lightheadedness, and fatigue.

A picture of the word "appetite" in a dictionary.
Appetite & hunger are different sensations.

On the other hand, appetite is a psychological desire for food, driven by factors like senses, emotions, and social cues.

Emotional hunger and appetite are similar. However, appetite is driven by physical hunger, while emotional hunger is a coping mechanism to manage emotions.

Creating structure can also support weight loss. Check out this Age-Defying Dietitian blog post – “Intermittent Fasting 101: A Simple Guide for Lasting Results“.

Strategies to Conquer Head Hunger

Below are 4 strategies to work through head hunger.

1. Use a Hunger Scale

Use a hunger scale to conquer head hunger! Learn what hunger specifically feels like for you with the scale below.

Assign a number from the hunger scale below before and after meals.

This takes away some of the subjective nature of hunger making it easier to differentiate between the types of hunger.

Learning to recognize and listen to your internal cues is a process. This is especially true for those with an extensive dieting history or disordered eating.

Hunger Scale 1-10 for working through Head Hunger
Source: Fitness Institute of Texas

2. Try Mindful Eating

Mindful eating strategies can help you identify and work through emotional eating triggers.

This type of eating encourages you to be present and engaged. As a result, you tend to make better choices and eat less.

Think about the last time you overate. Were you present and engaged? Most likely not. Head hunger is fueled by distraction and disconnection.

Check out this beginner’s guide to mindful eating from Healthline to learn more.

Woman practicing mindful eating to quiet her head hunger.
Be present & engaged when eating.

3. Practice Neutralizing Foods

Part of connecting with the belly, or physical hunger, involves neutralizing or legalizing food.

Labeling foods as “good” and “bad” can disconnect you from the pleasurable aspects of eating.

In addition, fear or shamed-based thoughts make it difficult to eat satisfying foods, which disrupts hunger and satiety.

You can learn more about legalizing food and assessing hunger in this Age-Defying Dietitian blog post “5 Tips to Make Peace with Food”.

All foods can fit!

4. Trust, Distract, & Ask for Help

Try these steps the next time you are feeling a strong emotional urge to eat:

  1. Identify what emotion you are feeling.
  2. Trust that food will only temporarily comfort you.
  3. Delay eating through distraction.
  4. Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, physical activity, etc.
  5. Reach out to others for support.
  6. Trust that you have the capacity to feel these uncomfortable feelings. This too shall pass!
Woman using her phone to call a friend for support.
Reach out for support when needed.

Takeaways on Head Hunger

Head hunger can make it difficult to lose weight.

Gain insight into your head hunger with some of the strategies above to move away from emotional eating.

Increase your connection to the physical sensations of hunger to support weight loss, and a healthier relationship with food!

Belly Hunger
Trust the process when learning to listen to your internal hunger cues.

Hungry for More?

Interested in more information on nutrition for healthy aging?

Check out the Age-Defying Dietitian’s Blog for more healthy aging content!

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