In this post, we dive into hunger: what is hunger, what does true hunger feel like, what happens when we ignore hunger and how to honor your hunger. This is what Principle #2 of intuitive eating is all about.
” Keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise you can trigger a primal drive to overeat. Once you reach the moment of excessive hunger, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant. Learning to honor this first biological signal sets the stage for re-building trust with yourself and food. ”Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating
Why do we feel hungry?
Hunger is a normal biological process. As living beings, we need to be constantly taking in energy in the form of food in order to carry out our daily lives. Hunger is the signal that our bodies send us to let us know we’re running low on energy and need to eat. I mean, we freak out when our smartphones are running on less than 20% battery and quickly run for the charger. Why should we treat ourselves less than this? Hunger is necessary in order to survive!
However, diet culture would have us believe that hunger is this negative sensation that we must overcome at all costs. Diet culture tells us that feeling hunger is:
- Loss of control
- Lack of “willpower”
We are all born intuitive eaters. As this interesting article from Today’s Dietitian explains it: “Consider how a hungry baby will cry until fed and then turn his or her head away when satiated. When children are fully aware of physical sensations of hunger and fullness, yet receive messages that they can’t possibly be hungry or that they have to eat everything on their plates before being excused from the table, it erodes trust of their bodies and autonomy”.
As I mentioned before, hunger is a totally normal bodily signal. Would you feel “ashamed” or “weak” for feeling sleepy after a hard day at the office? Then why would anyone have to feel like they “lack willpower” just because their body is telling them “hey, I need some fuel if you want to keep crushing it at work!”?
“What many people believe to be an issue of willpower is is instead a biological drive. The power and intensity of the biological eating drive should not be underestimated”Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating
Buy it Here: Intuitive Eating
And yet, diet culture has taught us to disconnect from our hunger. We disregard our hunger whenever we:
- Ignore it because eating will make us “gain weight”
- Discount it because we “just ate”
- Push it aside because it’s “not time to eat yet”
- Try to overcome it with dieting “methods” such as chewing gum, drinking water, drinking black coffee or other distraction tactics
Connecting with and honoring your hunger is an important principle of intuitive eating. It involves (1) getting to know when our bodies need energy, and (2) allowing ourselves to actually eat. Without external regulations (ie, diet mentality). This can be challenging for many of us that have been programmed to eat a certain amount of food, at a certain time and even certain types of foods. But in order to embrace food freedom, we have to be willing to re-learn to eat when our bodies need us to, versus when diet culture dictates. We need to start looking inside versus outside in order to truly connect with ourselves. That way, we can slowly start to rebuild trust with our bodies, and eventually start eating the way we were always supposed to.
What does true hunger feel like?
In order to start to honor your hunger, you need to know what to look for. Specifically, what does true hunger feel like? Well, since we’re all different, this sensation will not feel the same for all of us. But, just to give an example, here are some common body sensations that are telling us “hey, it’s time to eat” :
- Rumbling stomach
- Empty feeling in the stomach
- Lightheaded or dizziness
- Lack of concentration
- Irritability, frustration, or anger (aka “Hangry”)
- Lack of energy
External hunger management, such as diets, make it seem like there is a very exact amount of energy (in the form of calories) that your body needs. However, your metabolism changes from day to day based on a variety of factors , such as:
- Food intake (or lack thereof)
- Physical activity
- Hormonal changes
That’s one of the many ways dieting messes with our natural bodily functions. It disconnects us from what our bodies are trying to tell us and what they need to work properly, on a day to day basis. That’s why intuitive eating is so healing in the sense that it gets us back to eating in a more innate way.
How to use the hunger scale
One of the most useful ways to get in touch with our hunger is by practicing using a hunger scale. A hunger scale is a tool that can help you can back in touch with your hunger cues. During the day, try to see which number you would rate your hunger at. If you’re not sure, just rule out the ones you know are not it, then go with what YOU feel is the most representative at that particular moment. BTW, there is no right or wrong answer! And, remember this is just a tool, it’s not an obligatory exercise or anything like that.
This hunger rating scale ranges from 1 to 10, where 1 is extreme painful hunger and 10 is extreme painful fullness. By regularly practicing checking in with your hunger, this method will help you listen and become more in tune to your hunger( and fullness) cues.
Try to approach your hunger with a compassionate, nonjudgmental curiosity. Just try to write down in each box which number feels more “right” during each meal. An easy way is to notice which physical sensations are associated with each number. This way, you have a clear way to “visualize” your hunger cues. Try it for a day or two and see what you learn about yourself!
Pro Tip: I really like this tip from Rachel Hartley: “If the numbers feel overwhelming for you, drop them and just focus on uncomfortable/comfortable hunger, and comfortable/uncomfortable fullness.”
Types of Hunger
OK, so there’s also the subject of the different types of hunger. Don’t worry–as with the hunger scale, there is no right or wrong here. This is meant to be more of a reference to learn to get to know your hunger signals better.
The authors of Intuitive Eating organize hunger into 3 categories: Taste hunger, Practical hunger and Emotional hunger. Here is a summary of each one of them:
This is the type of hunger we may experience when something just looks, sound or tastes good. For example, when someone’s mentioning the amazing chocolate mousse they had the night before, or when you walk by a bakery and get a whiff of fresh bread. Of course it makes us want to eat these foods, even though we might not be feeling physical hunger signals. And there’s nothing wrong with that! You can honor your hunger based on taste as well. An intuitive eater would feel no guilt over enjoying a food triggered by taste hunger. Because food is also meant to be enjoyed! In fact, the sensory combination of aroma and taste, as studied in this paper, may enhance feelings of satiety.
Plus, by allowing ourselves to eat intuitively, previous “prohibited” foods lose their control over us, and a healthier relationship with food begins to ensue. When we know we can eat this or that food whenever, food obsessions begin to evaporate.
Tip: There is no right or wrong time to eat–even when you’re not hungry. Any type of external regulation over eating is diet mentality all over again.
Practical hunger refers to planning ahead in certain eating situations. Let me explain. If you know you’ll be having a very busy morning and probably won’t get to eat until mid day, but you’re not hungry when you first wake up, what do you do? Well, in this case, having a light snack instead may be practical in order for you to get the fuel you need during the morning. The body needs energy just like your smartphone needs batteries!
Difficult emotions can affect our eating habits. Sometimes, emotions are just too complex, we may not have developed the tools to manage them and controlling certain impulses can be too difficult. We’re human, after all! Interestingly, it is thought that eating for comfort may help reduce stress responses, such as the cortisol response. In human research, there is preliminary evidence to support this model, but we don’t have long term results to confirm this.
However, it’s important to recognize that emotional eating may be a normal response to difficult emotions. And sometimes physical hunger can get confused for emotional eating! #itscomplicated So the next time you overindulge on some cookie dough when stressed out, remember that it can be a normal response for many of us, and there are ways to work it out. No guilt allowed!
What happens when you ignore hunger?
Chronic dieting can definitely mess with your hunger cues. When you don’t honor your hunger, these signals can slowly fade or just become numbed. Many chronic dieters can feel extreme hunger signals, but not the more subtle, gentler cues. There are also many other negative side effects of ignoring your hunger, aka being in “starvation mode”. Let’s check it out.
When I first read Intuitive Eating, I learned for the first time about the Ancel Keys ( who is well-known for his work on the Mediterranean diet ) Minnesota Starvation Experiment. And yes, it’s as horrifying as it sounds. This study took place in November 1944 in the University of Minnesota football stadium. The subjects were 36 healthy men, and the purpose was to help famine sufferers during World War II.
During the first three months, the men ate as they normally did (mind that this was way before we became such a hyper weight obsessed society). Their daily food intake averaged around 3,200 calories a day. The next six months was a period of semi-starvation, with an average intake of “1,570 calories a day (divided between breakfast and lunch), then a restricted rehabilitation period of three months eating 2,000 to 3,200 calories a day, and finally an eight-week unrestricted rehabilitation period during which there were no limits on caloric intake”.
To get the gist of the conclusions of this study, the men experienced the following symptoms during the semi starvation stage:
- Significant decreases in their strength and stamina, body temperature, heart rate and sex drive
- Decrease in metabolic rate by around 40%
- Food obsession
- Episodes of bulimia
Now what do these symptoms remind you of…It actually took the subjects five months to normalize their eating! Imagine how much more difficult after a lifetime of dieting. That’s why I suggest having lots of patience and self compassion when breaking out of diet mentality. The trick is to do the opposite of what diet culture tells you: go at your own pace, learn to trust your body, and honor it’s very valid signals.
Intuitive eating resources
And if you need additional help with intuitive eating and learning to honor your hunger, here are my favorite resources. If you need more one-on-one support, here’s the Intuitive Eating Counselors Directory.
Intuitive eating books
- Intuitive Eating and
- The Intuitive Eating Workbook by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
- Anti Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison
- The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner
- Healthy Eating for Life: An Intuitive Eating Workbook to Stop Dieting Forever by Cara Harbstreet
Intuitive eating podcasts
And now I want to hear from you. How do YOU know when you’re hungry? What physical sensations do you often feel when your body needs food? Do you feel connected to your hunger cues? How do you honor your hunger? Talk to me below in the comments section!
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…