Hunger Detective

Hungry? Be a Hunger Detective!

September 20, 2021

Hungry? Be a Hunger Detective! In the weeks and months following weight loss surgery, most people experience practically no hunger at all, at least not physical hunger. The protein shakes, purees, and protein-first meal structure are usually enough to satiate us from the physical hunger standpoint. Emotional hunger or “head hunger” is a whole different beast. 

Hunger Detective for Physical and Emotional Hungers

Levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin decrease significantly after bariatric surgery and typically normalize sometime between 12-24 months post-surgery. Around this time, people will start experiencing more physical hunger symptoms. However, most people have achieved their weight loss goals in this timeframe (usually referred to as the honeymoon period).

This is the timeframe where some may relax some of those healthy habits that we adopted right after surgery, and behaviors like grazing and mindless eating can sneak back in if we are not paying attention that can lead to weight regain. It's important to learn how to distinguish between real, physical hunger and emotional hunger, using food to deal with feelings, not as a way to satisfy physical hunger. 

How can you be a hunger detective and know if it’s physical or emotional hunger? Time for some detective work.

Symptoms of physical hunger include:

  • Headache
  • Light-headedness or dizziness
  • Shakiness
  • Weakness
  • Felt in your stomach
  • Comes on slowly
  • Can be satisfied with any number of foods
  • Can be postponed with water

When you experience physical hunger, it is usually satisfied once you eat something. You can easily detect when you are full, and there’s typically no overeating involved.

Symptoms of emotional or head hunger include:

  • Cravings for a specific food
  • Feels urgent and starts suddenly
  • The need for food is prevalent in your thoughts
  • Easily leads to overeating
  • Often connected to an emotion or a trigger
  • Accompanied by feelings of regret, guilt, or shame after eating

To better understand how we respond to external factors, let’s look at some of the triggers for hunger, both physical and emotional.

  • Hunger
    • Being very hungry can affect your ability to think rationally when it comes to food selection – yes, hangry! Avoid extreme hunger by spacing your meals and snacks out throughout the day. Also, have a meal plan and prepped food for when hunger strikes. Protein shakes are a good choice when you are on the go and need something to tide you over until your next meal.
  • Emotional associations to food
    • Memories of certain places, events, or people may be linked to food.  Sometimes, revisiting those memories can create an EMOTIONAL hunger for the same emotions you felt -- comfort, pleasure, happiness, love, or even anger. Practice mindfulness to deconstruct those cravings to recognize them for what they are.
  • Stress
    • Most people have experienced cravings when under stress. People tend to crave high-fat or high-sugar foods when stressed, as they stimulate the reward center of your brain and make you feel good -- temporarily. These foods cause your body to release endorphins; the “feel good” chemicals that create a sense of contentment and fulfillment. This can create a conditioned response to food. 
  • Overly restrictive diets
    • Dietary restrictions can lead to cravings for foods that are labeled "bad" or "forbidden." As the cravings increase, it may lead to eating those foods, followed by feelings of guilt and further restriction, creating a negative habit loop:

There are a couple of ways of being a hunger detective and be able to determine which type of hunger you are experiencing. Try some of these strategies and take note of your observations.

hunger detective

What time is it?

When was the last time you ate? Is it time to eat again? If you eat 4-6 small meals throughout the day with a minimum of 15 grams of protein, you will stay more satisfied throughout the day, and your blood sugar will remain stable, avoiding insulin spikes and cravings for sugar or carbohydrates. If it's been more than 4 hours since you last ate, it may be time for a snack or small meal.

hunger detective

Check your hydration levels

Dehydration sometimes disguises itself as hunger. Try drinking an 8-ounce glass of water and wait 20 minutes to see if the hunger is still there. It's important to keep yourself hydrated throughout the day to avoid mistaking thirst for hunger. If you are still hungry after 20 minutes, have a snack or small meal.

Check-in with yourself

Ask yourself the tough questions. What is my emotional state? Am I bored, tired, restless, anxious, or stressed? Slow down and take 5 minutes for some deep breathing exercises.

Fuel yourself

Choosing nutrient-dense, protein-packed foods for your snacks and meals will keep your blood sugar stable throughout the day and keep you feeling fuller longer. Choosing the right food combinations at the right time for YOU will help you avoid hunger.

hunger detective

Journal it out

Keeping a food and mood journal is a good way to track how you are feeling when you eat and after you eat so you can start to connect the dots about your emotional eating patterns, and foods that might energize you, trigger cravings, or make you feel sluggish. 

Like with most other things, being fully present when it comes to your nutrition will help you get a handle on your hunger levels. You’ll begin to recognize when you are eating in response to external influences, and you’ll be more thoughtful about the choices that you make at mealtimes.

Awareness means defining your current relationship with food, then creating strategies to re-define that relationship. It's time to break up with "dieting" and start reframing how you control your triggers to develop more healthy eating patterns.

Hunger Detective
Marilyn Clark


Marilyn Clark is a certified Nutrition & Lifestyle Coach, a certified personal trainer, radical self-care advocate, an obesity survivor, a bariatric patient, and runs her website Off The Plate. She is a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, a Level 1 Precision pro certified in Sports & Exercise Nutrition, & a personal trainer by the National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer program!