• June 30, 2023

How Do I Deal With Mental Hunger? | Imbodi Health

What is mental hunger? If you have experienced an eating disorder, general disordered eating behaviours, or are currently in eating […]

What is mental hunger?

If you have experienced an eating disorder, general disordered eating behaviours, or are currently in eating disorder recovery, you may have had to deal with mental hunger.

Do you feel like you think about food a little too much? Do these thoughts about foods (that you think you should avoid) become endless?

It might be that you’re thinking about whether you’re ‘actually’ hungry. Or, if you ‘should’ eat all the food you’re eating. Do you Google ‘how to stop eating when full?’ or ‘how to tell if you’re actually hungry?’

Maybe you keep yourself busy, or exercise frequently throughout the day to distract yourself from eating.

Mental hunger is not a specific scientific term, but a phrase that describes thinking about food constantly, usually due to hunger. It can be a signal from the body saying that nutritional needs are not being properly met. This is recognised as a disordered eating behaviour.



What are the signs of mental hunger?

You might find that you experience some of these signs when experiencing mental hunger.

  • Frequently thinking about food
  • Frequently having cravings for certain foods
  • Poor concentration and irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Feeling weak
  • Confusion between feeling ‘hungry’ or ‘full’
  • Constantly thinking about exercising and movement throughout your day
  • Questioning whether you are actually hungry




What part does exercise play in mental hunger?

Exercise can play a considerable part in mental hunger. Sometimes, we just like to exercise or keep busy through exercising. Alternatively, you might notice that this behaviour is obsessive and that you use it to validate eating.

Exercise may be something that you feel you ‘should’ do in order to be ‘allowed’ to eat. You might feel like you should exercise and move constantly to burn off what you have eaten. Otherwise, you may be stressing about not having yet completed your daily workout and distracted when completing usual tasks throughout the day.

Exercise may be a reason to eat, and that might be why you feel like you should do it.


You don’t need a specific reason to eat.

Your body requires food to maintain essential bodily functions like breathing, circulation, or excretion of waste.

It is incredibly important to heal this notion that you need to ‘deserve’ food in order to eat. Your body may need to eat, but be undergoing confused or reduced appetite signals, and therefore try ‘needing to exercise’ as a method to prompt you to eat.

Having a healthy relationship with food requires acknowledging that food is more than just simply fuel for your body.


Why you might experience mental hunger 

There are many reasons why you might be experiencing mental hunger.

You may have experienced an eating disorder before, or be in your recovery phase. You may also have experienced periods of restriction and are struggling to align your hunger cues and appetite.

In this day and society, there is several types of dietary restriction that are socially acceptable and often ‘admired’ by society. These include diets like ‘gluten-free, low-carb, sugar-free,’ as well as obsessing with only eating foods one decides are ‘healthy’ and therefore experiencing ‘orthorexia’.

Unfortunately, these are labels and methods of restriction that can confuse your eating habits. Resultingly, when you restrict yourself for long periods of time, physical hunger symptoms may disappear or be irregular and lead to signs of not eating enough. This is when you may experience signs of disordered eating, like mental hunger.


How to deal with mental hunger

Working towards overcoming mental hunger is a step-by-step process. Here are some ways you can overcome mental hunger.


Ask yourself: why am I avoiding this specific type of food?

Note whether you have allergies, intolerances, or a medical condition that requires that you avoid this type of food – and these should be the main reasons why you are stopping yourself from having those foods. Otherwise – you may be restricting yourself unnecessarily.


Decide whether you are eating the foods you are thinking about

Be kind to yourself. You may be having a variety of food cravings, nagging thoughts about particular foods, and be worried about losing control around some foods. However, your body may want these for satisfaction and pleasure or for the nutrients that food provides and express this to you via mental hunger.

Restricting certain foods can increase feelings of mental hunger, as often limiting or avoiding foods can lead to intense food cravings.


Figure out if you’ve eaten enough during your day

It is important to eat enough to alleviate mental hunger cues. Regular eating is a key component of building healthy eating patterns. For many people, this consists of 3 meals and 2-3 snacks, or eating every 3-4 hours to attune yourself to fullness and satisfaction signals.

Notice when you’re thinking about food and allow yourself to eat when these thoughts are constant. Eat when you are hungry and stop eating when you feel fuller, as well as when you experience fewer nagging thoughts as you are probably satisfied.

Try to avoid skipping meals or snacks, as it can lead to increased mental hunger.

Understand whether you are eating adequately from all of the food groups.

Remember there are no bad foods. There is a spectrum from more nutritious to less nutritious – and eating all of these is okay and to be enjoyed!

A balanced diet consists of foods from all the food groups (Vegetables and legumes/beans, fruit, grain (cereal) foods, proteins like tofu, nuts, fish or eggs and dairy) as well as discretionary foods like ice-cream, chocolate or chips (1).


Work with an eating disorder dietitian

If you have been struggling for a long time with mental hunger, it could be beneficial to seek professional help from an experienced eating disorder dietitian.

A dietitian can help guide you around eating adequately from all food groups, and help you challenge any food rules or restrictions you may have to overcome mental hunger.

How long does mental hunger last?

Mental hunger will last as long as your body feels it is in restriction. The intensity of your mental hunger and its cues will depend on the period of restriction and/or how much you may exercise.

The more you allow yourself to eat and the sooner this occurs, the quicker your body will respond, and food thoughts will reduce significantly.



It is important to acknowledge that you don’t need a reason to eat, i.e., exercise, or need to find a reason to ‘deserve’ to eat and remind yourself that you are deserving of food no matter what. Try to respect your natural hunger and fullness cues which may include feeling weak, fatigue or difficulty focusing.

Avoid skipping snacks and meals and allow yourself to have the foods you are thinking about – because your body likely needs them to survive!

If you’re struggling on this journey, don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help. You are welcome to book a discovery call with our team of online dietitians.




Written by: Student dietitian Samadi Mallawa
Reviewed by: Eating disorder dietitian Jade Wrigley

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