WLS Success: Separating Head Hunger from Physical Hunger

WLS patients often have to break the lifelong habit of emotional eating and relearn what it really means to be physically hungry. Bariatric Physician Assistant Chrystyna Senkel explains how.

Weight loss surgery not only limits the amount of food that you can eat, but also brings about temporary hormonal changes that stave off physical hunger. As a result, patients often have to learn to distinguish between head hunger — driven by the habit of emotional eating — and the physical need for fuel in the form of food. Here, Bariatric Physician Assistant Chrystyna Senkel explains how to differentiate between the urge to eat and the need to eat. Understanding the difference, notes Senkel, can help bariatric patients better manage their pouch to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.



Head hunger is going to be related to emotional eating or stressful eating or habitual eating. It is non-hungry eating. It will be a nagging voice — something that is not a physical sensation. Something up here that says, “You’ve had a bad day…You deserve it…You’ve been so good, go ahead and have it…It won’t matter.” So, something nagging upstairs will be a head hunger type of thing and will result in non-hungry eating.

Whereas physical hunger is going to be more of a sensation — that sensation that people have of it feels empty, it’s gnawing, perhaps a bit painful, maybe a bit nauseated, feeling kind of jittery or nervous. This physical hunger, which is going to be felt typically right in here [gestures to sternum] that will be an actual physical sensation is the one that patients will want to pay attention to when they have had weight loss surgery.

This one up here [gestures to head] is going to be a habitual kind of thing, it’s going to be used for emotional reasons, whereas this one right here [gestures to stomach] is the one that requires that we are in tune with our body and that we know when we feel this.

Many patients have grown out of touch with that ability to note true physical hunger. They have eaten and eaten and eaten whatever and whenever, because it looked good or it felt good. So, they don’t even know, ‘Hey, this is talking to me here. Hey, I’m hungry here.’ They just listen to this one [pointing to head]. So, I really try and focus with people to get in touch with their bodies and to pay attention to this one [pointing to stomach].

2 Responses

  1. Bonnie Giles

    Clearly you are NOT a weight loss surgery patient yourself. Every WLS patient knows not to wait until they are as hungry as you profess to eat. Dumb. Your explanation of head hunger is accurate, but if you are advocating your patients wait until they feel that much of a hunger signal than you are doing them a disservice.

    Bonnie Giles
    Lap-Band patient since 2008

  2. Bariatric Style

    Bonnie, I don’t think Chrystyna Senkel was advocating that we wait until we are that hungry, as much as she was trying to explain the difference between actual physical hunger and “head” hunger.
    This was something that surprised me after my surgery. I realized I did not really know what it actually meant to be physically hungry as compared to eating from boredom or depression or celebration, or all the other reasons we eat that have nothing what so ever to do with actually being hungry. I had to learn to tell the difference in not only head hunger vs physical hunger but also the difference between being empty and actual physical hunger…