What’s Your Hunger Type?

By Ramani Durvasula, PhD Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Professor of Psychology, and Author of You Are WHY You Eat: Change Your Food Attitude, Change Your Life

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It may sound a bit like asking someone, “What’s your sign?” But, knowing your hunger type could actually help you become a little more mindful of your eating patterns so you can avoid the mindless calories that lead to extra pounds. 

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Most of us fall into one hunger type associated with our eating mistakes. However, everyone is different, and you may find yourself exhibiting characteristics of more than one hunger type. This may make it harder, but you can apply the solutions offered for each category to help you break from your established eating patterns.

Take a look at these hunger types and see where you land:

The Sensory Type

Does the smell, sight, or sound of food set you off and make you want to eat? Does this happen even if you just ate or are not hungry? People that fall into the Sensory Hunger Type crave food when their senses are awakened. In general, people don’t get turned on by broccoli, but certain foods with more typically alluring aromas – like hamburgers – can get you going. The tough thing about this hunger type is that it is so primitive and hard-wired – smelling food and having a growly tummy is an involuntary response. But, the Sensory Hunger Type is often affected by high-calorie foods that are hard to stop eating once you start (e.g. fresh-baked cookies).

Here are some other questions to ask yourself to determine if you are a Sensory Hunger Type. Think about your response to food smells and tastes: Do you audibly moan after eating certain foods (or even smelling them)? Do you get significantly distracted when you see or smell certain foods? 

What are the risks of this hunger type? When you are in places or situations where you are facing the smells, sounds, and sights of your favorite foods, it can be hard to say no. This can be true of Sensory Hunger Types even when they are full. They use cues outside of their bodies to dictate whether or not to eat instead of listening to what’s going on inside of their bodies.

Tips for the Sensory Hunger Type

If sensory hunger is your thing, then you are more vulnerable to sights, smells and sounds – in short, your senses – so the best thing is to cut them off at the pass. A few suggestions:

  • Carry around a small bottle of grapefruit oil. Research suggests that breathing it in may help redirect those cravings or at least distract you from other “trigger” food odors. 
  • Pre-load with protein. Sometimes, when you go into a “high-sensory environment,” such as a food court, the combination of being a Sensory Hunger Type and being hungry can be a perfect storm. At least take off the edge by consuming a small protein snack. Mix it up – edamame, a small skim latte – these things have protein too. It may be just enough to keep you from falling too hard for the sensory triggers.  

The Emotional Type

This may be the most common hunger type – eating in response to a feeling instead of to hunger. Before you reach for food, think about the acronym FLAB: Frustrated, Lonely, Angry, Bored. These are amongst some of the most common reasons that people eat when they are not hungry.  

The Emotional Hunger Type can have some real problems with regulating how they eat because they are eating for reasons that are unrelated to hunger and using food for something it is not designed to do – to soothe, calm or numb themselves. This is also a tough hunger type because it can turn into a pattern. In the Emotional Hunger Type, we often see that the person feels hungry all of a sudden, and will use the food to distract from the unpleasant feeling. This hunger type is also associated with wanting a “quick fix” and an immediate way of beating back a feeling. 

Here are some questions to ask yourself to determine if you are an emotional eater: Do you eat when you feel bad? When you feel happy? What kinds of foods do you tend to go for when you are unhappy? Do you use food to numb your emotions?    

What are the risks for the Emotional Hunger Type? This type can put on weight fast, and it can be hard to manage weight. Food is being used to manage emotions, instead of learning more useful coping skills and doing the heavy lifting required to work through those emotions. Life is full of challenges – and Emotional Hunger Types may stop listening to their biological hunger cues and let their emotions win at the dinner table.

 

Tips for the Emotional Hunger Type

  • One suggestion I frequently take myself and offer to clients is the magic of tea, especially a fragrant tea like Roobios. The warmth and the slight sweetness can soothe and take the edge off – without all of the calories.
  • Distract yourself with a more appropriate tool. Make a list of distractor tasks that fill those emotional needs, such as frustration or boredom. You can try exercise, reading, calling a friend, watching TV, writing in your journal, etc. These techniques may be better for scratching that emotional itch, and certainly have fewer calories.

The Habitual Hunger Type

This hunger type is all about routine and schedule. You don’t listen to whether or not your body wants to eat, but rather, you eat because it is time to eat. The Habitual Hunger Type is challenging because you often override your body’s sense of hunger and of fullness in the name of your schedule or the schedule demands of others. 

The Habitual Hunger Type can be influenced by early environments – parents who insisted on meal times. It can also be controlled by current environments – such as a set lunch hour at work. This can lead you to think you are “hungry” when you hear the dinner bell ring, even though you really aren’t.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to determine whether you are a Habitual Hunger Type: Do you eat at set times every day, whether or not you are hungry? Do you eat when other people insist on it?

The risk for this hunger type is in outsourcing your sense of knowing your own hunger (or fullness) to variables outside of you. These habits can lead to eating those extra calories even when you don’t need them. 

 

Tips for the Habitual Hunger Type

  • It’s a battle – you vs. the schedule and the people who want you to eat when they want you to eat.  Try a “clock fast” – for a few days, listen to your body and eat when it wants to eat, instead of when others or schedules tell you to do so.  Monitor it and see if you start eating less. 

The Apple Test for All Hunger Types

Whether you’re a Sensory, Emotional or Habitual Hunger Type, much of the difficulty here is the question of whether or not you are really hungry. Lots of people struggle with this – and I’ve got the perfect trick to get to the bottom of it.

Pick fruits and vegetables you like – apple, carrots, tomatoes, cherries – whatever floats your boat. The next time you are thinking you are hungry – ask yourself, “Will an apple handle my hunger right now?” If you are really hungry – even if an apple isn’t exactly what you want – it will seem as good an option as any and you will welcome it. 

If however, you are eating for some other reason, then you will turn your nose up at that apple or carrot and say, “I am hungry for a burger…” In such cases, you are probably not really hungry but eating for some other reason. The apple test is a quick and dirty way for folks who struggle with these different hunger types to respond to hunger instead of something else.

Once you figure out your hunger type and whether or not you are hungry, you are in a better position to be mindful whenever you have to face mealtimes and food. Good luck!