The Differences Between Physical Hunger and Anxiety

Being hungry is natural and basic in human beings, but eating out of sheer anxiety isn't. Here, we'll tell you how to differentiate both pictures and what to do in case of having an unhealthy relationship with food.
The Differences Between Physical Hunger and Anxiety
Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador

Written and verified by el biólogo Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador.

Last update: 24 October, 2023

We’re all hungry several times a day, which should come as no surprise, as living beings require a minimum number of calories to be able to keep our internal processes afloat. The energy that food gives us allows us to move, think, breathe, and even keep our heart working at all times. In any case, some emotional pictures can cause us to feel hungry when our needs are already met at a physiological level. Keep reading, because in the following article, we’ll tell you the differences between physical hunger and anxiety.

What is hunger?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines hunger as “an uneasy sensation occasioned by the lack of food.” This term can also refer to the scarcity of basic ingredients in impoverished societies and poverty in general, but we’re only going to treat the concept from a physiological point of view.

Hunger corresponds to a purely organic sensation that motivates caloric intake. It occurs through a series of internal biological processes that are triggered when various bodily centers warn us that energy is needed to keep us alive. On the other hand, appetite corresponds to the desire to eat food from an emotional point of view.

Hunger control

In the short term, this universal sensation is controlled by the following elements:

  • Neural signals from the gastrointestinal tract: The vagus nerve is essential in the digestive system, as it produces the reflex of coughing, vomiting, or swallowing, and coordinates both esophageal and intestinal movements. Vagal receptors inhibit hunger when gastric filling distention occurs.
  • Hormonal Pathways: The hormone ghrelin, produced in the stomach, peaks in the blood before meal times. It’s known as the quintessential hunger trigger, but there are quite a few other regulators. For example, insulin and cholecystokinin are released when nutrients are absorbed and inhibit the urge to eat.
  • Psychological factors: Although hunger is physiological in a strict sense, taste and desire play an essential role in its development in some cases. For example, we can get hungry when we see a dish that we like a lot even though the body doesn’t require additional calories at that specific moment.

Long-term hunger regulation is quite complex to explain. In any case, it’s enough for us to know that leptin, a hormone synthesized in adipose (fatty) tissue, regulates energy balance and inhibits appetite when there’s no need to eat. This means that adipocytes (cells that store fat) aren’t overloaded.

People with obesity have a reduced sensitivity to leptin. Therefore, they’re unable to feel full despite having more than enough energy reserves in their body.

What is anxiety?

A man sitting on a couch with his chin in his hands, looking worried.
Although anxiety is a completely natural organic response, it can evolve into a disorder if it occurs in an intense and sustained way.

For its part, the American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” This response is natural and adaptive, but it can turn chronic and become a disorder if it’s established for long periods of time.

When a stressor occurs in the environment, living beings enter a state known as a fight-or-flight response. This reaction begins in the amygdala, which elicits a response in the hypothalamus. In turn, it activates the pituitary gland and promotes the secretion of the hormone ACTH (adrenocorticotropic).

The adrenocorticotropic hormone leads to the synthesis of cortisol and epinephrine by the adrenal cortex. These latter hormones, known as the main physiological component of stress, cause us to direct much of our energy to the senses and muscles in order to cope with the perceived threat. In other words, we prepare to fight or flee.

This complex response is natural in times of physiological stress, but anxious people perceive discomfort even though there’s no threat present at the time. It’s common for patients with GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) to worry about events that haven’t yet happened or that are much less serious than they’re perceived to be.

Anxiety has a clear psychological component but also a physiological one. Patients with these types of disorders tend to somatize their symptoms and feel pain and discomfort, especially in the gastrointestinal environment.

What are the differences between physical hunger and anxiety?

Now that we’ve dissected both terms in detail, we’re ready to explore the differences between physical hunger and anxiety. We’ll analyze each point separately and exhaustively. Keep reading.

1. Hormonal triggers are different

The first of the differences between physical hunger and anxiety has already been exposed along the introductory lines, although it doesn’t hurt to outline them either. These are the most important hormones involved in each of the processes that concern us:

  1. Hunger: Ghrelin, cholecystokinin (CCK), pancreatic polypeptide (PP), insulin, peptide YY (PYY), glucagon-like peptide (GLP-1), and oxynomodulin (OXM), among others.
  2. Anxiety: Adrenaline, cortisol, estrogens, testosterone, thyroid hormones (T3 and T4), and oxytocin, among others.

Although the endocrine system is a complex network in living beings, there are hormones that affect some processes more than others. Cortisol is the quintessential stress and anxiety hormone, while ghrelin is the most relevant regulator of hunger.

2. The symptoms of each sensitive condition are very different

Although both physiological (and psychological) events have a very clear subjective component, a series of common symptoms can be described in almost all cases. We’ll analyze them separately and then compare their peculiarities.

Hunger symptoms

The Kaiser Permanente portal provides us with a hunger scale with typical clinical signs at each stage. These are the following:

  1. Extreme hunger: Weakness, dizziness, lack of energy to perform daily actions, thinness, a haggard appearance, and growth retardation (in case it occurs in infants).
  2. Very hungry: Irritability, rumbling in the stomach, and low energy levels. The emptier the stomach and intestines are, the more air they “process”, which is why they make more noise. For this reason, hunger is associated with abdominal rumbling in almost all cases.
  3. Quite hungry: The stomach rumbles slightly, but the person can carry out their daily activities without too much difficulty. The lack of energy isn’t very evident.

The most obvious signs of acute hunger (for a short period of time) are gut sounds and general weakness. On the other hand, chronic malnutrition manifests itself systemically and affects several organ complexes at the same time.

Symptoms of anxiety

Symptoms of anxiety can be both physiological and cognitive. We’ll summarize the quantifiable (physical) symptoms in the following list:

  • Digestive: Abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, indigestion, dry mouth, and others.
  • Muscular: Fatigue, tremors, and muscle overload or tension.
  • Cardiac: Chest pain, palpitations, and tachycardia.
  • Neurological: Dizziness, vertigo, paresthesia, and headache.
  • Respiratory: A feeling of shortness of breath and rapid breathing (tachypnea).

These signs are accompanied by a series of very specific thoughts related to anxiety. The person affected by this emotional state usually feels that something bad is going to happen imminently, has intrusive thoughts, can’t stop evoking negative ideas (rumination), and, in general, perceives a constant and unjustified danger.

The differences between physical hunger and anxiety in the symptomatic field

Although there are many distinctions between the two processes, it’s undeniable that anxiety can lead a person to have an unhealthy relationship with food. Without going any further, it’s considered that psychogenic obesity is one that’s caused by its own symptoms in the emotional sphere, such as anxiety, depression, and many other disorders.

For example, some studies have found that a large percentage of obese people in certain samples have mild, moderate, or severe anxiety. In addition, between 50 and 70% of patients with obesity have an associated mental disorder, including GAD (generalized anxiety disorder).

Beyond these data, it’s easy to distinguish a picture of physical hunger from a channeling of anxiety with food. The following list will help you establish the boundaries between each term.

  1. The anxiety is sustained but increases suddenly. On the other hand, hunger establishes itself slowly and reaches the pinnacle of its expression when it comes to breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
  2. Physiological hunger “asks” the body for almost any food material. On the other hand, anxiety is usually associated with the intake of specific foods.
  3. Anxiety causes uncontrollable binges, while hunger encourages eating to achieve natural satiety.
  4. Food anxiety is followed by guilt, however, solving hunger by eating well isn’t.
  5. Physiological hunger is associated with certain signs, such as a rumbling stomach or weakness. On the other hand, anxiety has more generalized symptoms that don’t involve a growling stomach.

3. Anxiety hunger seeks caloric foods

This is one of the differences between physical hunger and anxiety that comes on its own after understanding all of the above. As we’ve said, anxious people who have an unhealthy relationship with food tend to look for high-calorie foods to feel good. This includes chocolates, ultra-processed candies, fried foods, and in general, junk food.

On the other hand, a hungry person will want to eat and will have certain preferences, but not a fixation for something especially sweet or processed. Hunger is satisfied in many ways, while anxiety requires releasing that discomfort through highly stimulating (usually unhealthy) foods.

If you have doubts about feeling hungry and having anxiety at the same time, try putting a healthy food in front of you (such as an apple or a chicken breast). If you’re hungry, you’ll eat it, but if you’re feeling anxious, you’ll probably look for something more appetizing.

4. Hunger usually manifests at the same times every day

An analog alarm clock sitting on a white and yellow ceramic plate, surrounded by fresh vegetables.
If a similar routine is followed, hunger will soon appear at more or less the same times every day. This doesn’t happen in the case of anxiety binges.

Human beings are routine and customary. Therefore, if we eat at the same time every day, we’ll usually feel hungry for about an hour before we eat. The digestive system takes between 3 and 4 hours to metabolize the ingested nutrients, so it’s not normal to feel hungry in that interval after eating.

On the other hand, the emotional hunger derived from anxiety erupts at almost any time, especially after something bad happens or in a situation of very intense stress. This causes the anxious person to eat between meals and even lose track of how many times something is put in their mouth between meals.

Hunger is predictable, but the urge to eat from stress isn’t. If you feel like you want to put something in your mouth out of sheer anxiety, try deep breathing and use relaxation techniques.

5. Anxiety hunger sometimes requires a trigger

In the emotional sphere, a trigger refers to an event or situation that sparks negative feelings in the person who experiences it. These triggers range from words to physical acts, through social settings and many other sensory stimuli.

Physical hunger is established little by little, but the need to eat due to anxiety usually requires a prior trigger, even if the person doesn’t realize it. For example, it’s possible that the urge to put something in your mouth comes after an argument, due to social pressure, or to alleviate a recently received bad news.

The differences between physical hunger and anxiety: A matter of nuances

As you can see, establishing the difference between physical hunger and anxiety at the food level is quite difficult. A person can eat because they’re hungry, but also to counteract a picture of stress and discomfort. It’s no coincidence that a significant percentage of obese people have psychological disorders, including GAD and others that involve anxiety.

If you feel like you’re eating compulsively at extreme moments, we recommend putting yourself in the hands of a professional. There’s nothing wrong with being overweight or out of shape physically, but there’s nothing wrong with establishing an unhealthy relationship with food in the long term. It’s important to seek well-being and control of our own emotions.

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