Hunger Literacy: teaching your child to identify and nourish their real hunger, by Anita Johnston, PhD

Typically, when we get hungry, we assume it’s physical hunger, but when dealing with disordered eating behaviors, we have to become more thoughtful about hunger because non-physical hunger can often be an important signal of an emotional need. It can guide us towards responding to the emotional and spiritual needs that facilitate healing. Most of us weren’t taught to identify the sensations of physical hunger vs. emotional hunger, but this is certainly something that we can do to help our children in recovery.

Some cultures have 20 different words for snow, or rain, or waves. In our culture, we have just one word for these things. It’s the same with hunger. We have physical hunger and we have emotional hunger, and each of those hungers has many different facets. We can help our children heal from eating disorders by building hunger literacy.

Physical hunger includes physical sensations like: 

  • Contraction or expansion
  • Heaviness or lightness
  • Roughness or smoothness
  • Hollowness or density
  • Movement or stillness

These are experiences of physical feelings. While they are different for different people, we typically feel them in the torso – anywhere from the belly button to the throat.

Emotional hunger arises when we have a need for: 

  • Attention
  • Affection
  • Appreciation
  • Acknowledgement
  • Quiet time
  • Excitement
  • Comfort

Emotional needs can be difficult to express. In fact, for many of us, they are often hidden and out of our awareness. This is why many of us reach for food or become afraid of certain foods when these hungers arise.

A parent can start conversations about the difference between physical versus emotional hunger by asking questions like, “Where in your body do you feel your hunger?” What does it feel like?” and “Describe your hunger to me.” Chances are, if the answer is a physical sensation in the body, the hunger is physical. If the answer is unintelligible “Uhhhh,” “Ummm…” or “I just don’t know!” then there’s a good chance that the hunger is emotional.

The key here is to be playful with this idea, even make a game of “Finding Your Hunger”. Hungers are individual and emotional hunger, in particular, is often hidden, so it’s best for parents to approach conversations about hunger with lightness and curiosity.

Learning hunger literacy is something that parents should try to do for themselves, first. When parents use their own experience in identifying the difference between physical and emotional hungers, they are better able to talk about them with their kids. So, it would be helpful for parents to be able to describe exactly what physical sensations they experience in their bodies when they are hungry; and where in their bodies they feel them.

A useful metaphor is of two tanks that need to be filled: Tank A and Tank B. You fill Tank A with food when you are physically hungry. You fill Tank B with an experience that is emotionally nourishing, such as meditation, heartfelt connection, some kind of movement, being in nature, or a creative or restful activity. A parent may be able to help their child fill Tank B by doing something like walking, hugging, talking or painting with their child. Or a parent may just need to sit quietly with their child as a compassionate presence. Just like the food we choose to fill our physical hunger will vary, we must also vary the behavior we choose to fill emotional hunger.

Let’s take the example of someone who wants pizza. The statement, “I want pizza,” is not necessarily an indication of physical hunger, so the first thing to do is to explore how the hunger presents itself. Is it a physical sensation somewhere in the body, or is it indefinable? If it’s physical, then the appropriate response is to eat the pizza. But if you have ruled out physical hunger, then, more than likely, pizza is a metaphor for some kind of emotional hunger.

In the absence of a physical hunger sensation, pizza can represent another need, and, sometimes it’s a need we might not even be aware of because the emotional hunger is being hidden by a food object: pizza. To find that hidden hunger, we must ask ourselves “what is the feeling I’m trying not to feel?” For example, a child might be afraid about an upcoming test she has, or worried that she won’t get invited to a party, or concerned about something her friend said to her. Help your child dig deep to look for the feeling she is trying not to feel. It’s typically the feelings that we don’t want to feel that create the hungers that want to get fed through food.

The food we want to eat when we’re not physically hungry will show us the way to our emotional hunger. The food is how we crack the code. Look closely at the food – what are the physical qualities of that food that are so attractive? How would you describe it? The food is talking to you. It’s trying to tell you about emotional hungers, but it’s talking in code.

Cracking the emotional code of food

  • Sweet foods: feeling not sweet enough, or that there’s not enough sweetness in your life
  • Crunchy/salty foods: often have to do with unexpressed anger and frustration
  • Warm foods: can indicate a longing for emotional warmth and comfort
  • Spicy foods: feeling bored, can be a need for excitement, stimulation, change
  • Chocolate: often associated with sensuality, physical touch, or romance

This is where you begin. Everyone is different. Play with the concepts. If a child really craves a certain food and they don’t have a physical hunger signal, explore the possibility of other hungers hidden beneath the food. What does the food represent? How is this food trying to tell you what they need?

In the pizza example, if the pizza is described as warm and salty, you might want to question: Does your child need more emotional warmth, but is feeling angry because she thinks she should be old enough to handle life without your care? If your child craves chocolate chip ice cream and describes it as being both sweet and crunchy, you might wonder if your child needs assurance about her inherent “goodness.” Or is she feeling frustrated by the fact that she now has more responsibilities but also needs more sweetness in her life?

As parents, we can help our children nourish their emotional hungers by helping them identify what their food hungers mean to them.


If you would like to learn these skills for yourself so that you can better integrate them into your parenting, then consider signing up for the free Soul Hunger Video Series from the Light of the Moon Cafe and download the Food & Metaphors Guide.


dr anita johnstonDr. Anita Johnston co-founded the Anorexia & Bulimia Center of Hawaii in 1982. In 2001, she founded the Ai Pono Intensive Out-Patient Eating Disorders Programs in Honolulu and most recently opened ‘Ai Pono Maui Residential Eating Disorders Program on the island of Maui.

She is the co-creator of the online e-course/support circle, Light of the Moon Café, which is an interactive “workbook” for Eating in the Light of the Moon and provides support for women around the world who struggle with eating and body image difficulties.  Additionally, she provides individual consultation, conducts workshops on disordered eating across the country, and lectures widely to professional organizations, medical institutions, and the community at large.

Leave a Reply