Head hunger is eating out of habit without giving thought to whether or not you are actually hungry. It can also be an attempt to self-sooth. The concept is unfamiliar to many people and many more do not distinguish between head hunger and physical hunger.
Head hunger is more associated with those who have problems controlling how much they eat. It is related to emotional eating and has nothing to do with the physical cues that signal the body’s need for food.
Physical hunger can be addressed by eating any type of food, but mental hunger is more selective and can be satisfied only by a specific food or taste. Physical hunger builds gradually and gets stronger over time while head hunger comes on suddenly and needs immediate satisfaction. Physical hunger ends when you eat but head hunger might disappear if you distract yourself.
Three Ways to Distinguish Between Head Hunger and Physical Hunger
Physical hunger is characterized by a gnawing sensation. The feeling occurs due to interaction between the digestive system, endocrine system, and brain. It is a mechanism that ensures your body is getting the fuel it needs to function. Physical hunger also results from chemical changes in the body related to low glucose levels that are present several hours after eating.
Head hunger is a conditioned response to food that is sensory or psychological and triggers an involuntary response such as salivation or stomach contractions. It is a habit built by using food as a buffer in times of stress.
A second way to distinguish between head hunger and physical hunger is to use the rating of perceived hunger (RPH) scale. The RPH scale helps people become aware of body hunger and satiety cues. Hunger perception is rated on a scale from 0 to 10. Zero is the mark for extreme hunger and 10 is the mark for extreme fullness. Target numbers are between three and eight. People should begin eating at level three where the urge is strong but not extreme. They should stop at level eight when they are comfortably full. It is important to eat slowly because it takes the brain fifteen to twenty minutes to sense that the stomach is full.
Finally, a person should learn to distinguish between emotional hunger and physical hunger. Physical hunger occurs every 3 to 4 hours. Hunger cues will pass if they are ignored, and the body will slow down to conserve energy. Hunger will be more extreme when it returns.
Ignoring hunger cues is not recommended because when you finally eat there is a tendency to overeat Emotional hunger occurs when people are sad, happy, anxious or bored. Using food as an emotional crutch is problematic, and substitute behaviors must be learned. The possibility of having an eating disorder also exists, and if this is suspected it might be necessary to consult a registered dietitian, psychologist, or physician.
In good health,
Content is the opinion of the author and does not constitute or is a replacement for medical advice.