Every so often I get an email or Facebook message from someone asking “why am I so mentally hungry when I’m not physically hungry?”. I’m not sure if it’s because the weather has turned colder (and we all feel a pull to eat more in the fall!) or if it’s just coincidence but I’ve had 3 really similar questions about this in the last 10 days, so I thought I should answer it here – since clearly this is something a lot of people are having trouble with!
Examples of Mental Hunger:
Mental hunger = That gnawing urge or desire to eat something when you know you aren’t hungry or that non stop chatter in your brain telling you that you need to eat a specific thing.
I have one woman who finds herself thinking of going to the vending machine in her work cafeteria an hour after lunch. She tries to ignore thoughts about this, because she can feel her belly physically still has food in it, but the urge to get up and go get a snack keeps pulling at her.
Another acquaintance is trying to lose body fat for an upcoming event and has been on a strict diet for several months. She has a certain amount of calories she allows herself each day and feels like she is eating enough. She says she doesn’t feel hungry on this diet but she is having a hard time staying under her calorie goal lately because even though she technically isn’t feeling hunger in her body, her mind keeps telling her to eat. Every day is a battle between staying under those calories or giving in to thoughts about cookies, crackers and donuts!
I also received a message from someone who is going through a tough time in several areas of her life. One area that normally isn’t a problem for her is food but lately her weight feels like it’s skyrocketing because she finds herself eating in front of the TV, while she’s cooking dinner, in her car – everywhere and anywhere. She’s always feeling the urge to eat, even when she isn’t really hungry.
The circumstances are all slightly different but the reasons we feel “mentally” hungry are almost always the same. There are 3 reasons I see over and over again. Do you see yourself in any of these?
3 Causes of Mental Hunger
You’re physically depriving yourself of food too often
This happens when you have been on a diet for a long time, have frequently been on diets in your lifetime or a general tendency to restrict food intake even when not actively on a diet.
The body keeps diligent track of how much food it’s getting, if it’s getting the right nutrients and if it has enough energy and fat stores to get through periods of difficulty. As much as we may want to be a certain size or body fat percentage, our body puts our general survival and health as a major priority and it sees depleting fat stores as a threat to our safety.
It thinks famine is here and in order to survive a period where less food is available, it will do whatever it can to get you to eat when food is available, in order to offset any fat / weight you would lose during a time of famine. In this way, your body is actually trying to help you! If you have been dieting or restricting for awhile and your mind is really working hard to get you to eat more, it’s technically doing it’s job. It’s working exactly the way it is supposed to.
You are emotionally hungry.
We tend to call this urge to eat mental hunger because the source of it seems to come from our brain. It’s the non stop thoughts we have about food or an unconscious pull to get up and go to the fridge but for a big portion of us, it’s not so much mental as it is emotional.
Everything in life “feeds” us in some way (if you want more info on this, check out this post). Our job, social life, home life, creative life and lots more contribute to how well rounded and satisfied we are with our life. If there is an area of your life where you are not emotionally satisfied, you may turn to food to fill that void or need. If there is an area of our life that isn’t “nourished” well, we will feel “off” or like something is missing (even if we can’t identify initially what that is) and we turn to food to “fill” that space up.
How is your job/career going? Is it fulfilling or soul crushing? Somewhere in between? How is your social life? Full or lacking? Romantic life? Spiritual life? Do you have creative outlets? Time for self-care? Physical activity/stress relief? Do you feel that you have purpose? Do you feel you are giving back in some way? etc.
Analyze your life a little. What is missing? Why do you feel restless? What do you want more of? Less of? And then try to “feed” those areas so that they’re more balanced, more satisfied. Eating emotionally will happen less and less as you find your soul is getting the nourishment it needs in multiple areas.
There are feelings you are trying to avoid feeling
No one likes to feel uncomfortable but uncomfortable feelings are a part of life but some of us will whatever we can to avoid them! Uncomfortable feelings like discomfort, confusion, sadness, loneliness, anger and shame get stuffed down and pushed away. As a way to deal with them, we may use food as a distraction or to seek comfort. If we are eating, it gives us something to do or makes us feel temporarily positive feelings that help us avoid the negative feelings we were feeling. That repetitive urge to eat that we refer to as mental hunger is really our way of trying to ignore something we are feeling that we don’t want to feel.
To complicate matters further, we don’t even know how to feel uncomfortable feelings. When one arises, what do you feel? Panic? Anxiety? Confusion? Restlessness? All of the above? And then what happens? You reach for food because not only do you not want to feel what you’re feeling – you also aren’t sure what the heck to do with it! We think we need to take action on it somehow, but that’s not really necessary. Sometimes feelings just need to be felt.
We avoid feeling uncomfortable feelings (and not knowing what to do with them) by numbing out with food. Eating food temporarily brings us comfort and sometimes even joy – for a few minutes we can avoid the feelings we were having and feel something better. But these feelings will keep coming back up, and the urge to eat will keep coming back as long as we don’t let the feelings we have run their course. We can’t outrun our feelings. They have to come out! If you need more info on feeling your feelings, read this post or this one.
Does one of these causes of mental hunger seem to be appearing in your life? If you’re not sure or if you want help working on your own relationship with food, let’s talk. Honestly. Openly. Confidentially.
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