Jan - Feb 2012

Is it Your Stomach or Your Head?

By Jessica Charbonneau, LCSW


Bariatric surgery does a great job of eliminating that uncomfortable feeling of hunger you experience when you go on a diet. But what happens when you eat for reasons other than being hungry?  Do you eat for emotional reasons?  If you do, you are less likely to be as successful with your weight loss after surgery.  There are six different types of hunger you may experience besides true ‘stomach’ hunger, as identified by Jan Chozen Bayes in her book, “Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food”.  You need to be aware of these other types of hunger. It can be extremely challenging to tell the difference, but with practice and awareness this is a skill you can learn. 


It is important to pay attention to the three most common types of emotional hunger: eye hunger, nose hunger, and mouth hunger.

Eye Hunger: Have you ever finished a filling restaurant meal, when your server suddenly appears with the dessert tray? Even though, only moments before, you were comfortably satisfied, just a glimpse of strawberry cheesecake is all it takes for your eyes to override your stomach. Seeing the cheesecake can actually convince you that you are hungry again. This is a form of eye hunger; eating not because you are hungry, but because something looks good. 

Nose Hunger: Something similar can happen with our sense of smell. Nose hunger can be especially difficult to distinguish from true stomach hunger because our olfactory senses are often linked to memories.  Pleasant memories will lead to a stronger desire to eat more. Remembering the smell of grandma’s apple pie, buttered popcorn at the movie theater, or a summer barbecue can have the same effect on us as the dessert tray at a restaurant.   

Mouth Hunger: Similarly, mouth hunger is related to your desire to stimulate your sensation of taste.  Most of us have experienced that nagging feeling that we want something crunchy, sweet, or salty.  Instead of true stomach hunger, you are craving a taste or texture and want to feel the prolonged pleasure of that flavor. 

So what can we do to prevent these other types of hunger? First we can practice determining what is true stomach hunger and what is not.  Often times true stomach hunger is accompanied by stomach rumbling. You can practice using hunger fullness scales (1=starving to the point of a headache or lightheadedness, 10=stuffed, think thanksgiving dinner). This can assist you in assessing how hungry or full you feel.


Most of your thoughts and behaviors about eating have existed for a long time. You have the ability to make changes, but they will take time and practice.