Types of hunger intuitive eating

The 4 types of hunger in intuitive eating and what they mean

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In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the four types of hunger in Intuitive Eating. Hunger is one of those natural body signals that diet culture tries to battle against in every way possible. Feeling hungry? Oh, the horror! You must squash it, ignore it or distract yourself from this feeling as soon as possible! 🙄 But, what if I told you that not honoring your hunger will most definitely backfire, and serve you in no possible way? As a non-diet dietitian, allow me to illustrate the four different types of hunger, talk about what they each mean, and guide you on how to allow yourself to have what you’re hungry for. Let’s dive right in!

hunger types in intuitive eating
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What is hunger, really?

Rather than treat it as a nuisance that needs to be avoided at all costs, hunger is just the way your body is trying to tell you that it needs energy. Its purpose is to signal the body that it needs to eat. The basic goal of eating is to relieve hunger. Simple, right? Well, when we live in a fat-biased culture that equates eating to “gaining weight”, honoring our hunger is not as simple as it’s naturally wired to be.

Think about it. Have you ever been in one of the following situations?

  • You just had breakfast and a short time later, you’re hungry again
  • You’re starving, but it’s not close to lunchtime, so you power through your hunger
  • You’re not really hungry, but someone in the office brought a box of donuts and now you can’t stop thinking about them (and feel guilty because of it)
  • You have difficulty focusing on work or conversations because you can’t stop thinking about how hungry you constantly feel
  • You’re not hungry, but you can’t stop reaching for food (sometimes even when it doesn’t even taste that great to you)

I think I can safely say we’ve all been there. Hunger can take on many forms and meanings, as we’ll see later on. Diet culture tells us to control this hunger, either by eating as little as possible to curb it or distract it through questionable tactics like chewing gum, exercising the sensation away, or drinking water.

But what if instead of running from this normal sensation, we just listened to it? What is my hunger really trying to tell me? Body signals are all about information. When we touch something hot, we immediately feel the pain that makes us move our hands away in order to prevent further damage.

Well, something similar happens with hunger. When we feel that empty, wanting feeling, our bodies are telling us that we need something to fulfill it. This is why trying to “control” it (instead of attending it) will always be an exercise in futility. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the four types of hunger, what our hunger is trying to tell us, and how to allow ourselves to actually feed it.

What is my hunger really trying to tell me?

Types of hunger: How many categories of hunger are there?

While some may list up to 12 types of hunger, the majority fall under the four types of hunger according to Intuitive Eating:

  • Physical Hunger
  • Emotional Hunger
  • Taste Hunger
  • Practical Hunger

Let’s take a look at each one in order to decode them.

Types of Hunger: What is Physical Hunger?

Physical hunger is the signal that our bodies send us to let us know we’re running low on energy and need to eat. This type of hunger is necessary in order to survive since we need food in order to function! Physical hunger is gradual and is tied to the last time you ate.

Connecting with and honoring your physical 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 who 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, not 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 meant to.

Physical signs of hunger

Since we’re all different, physical signs of hunger will not feel the same for all of us. And interestingly enough, you can also experience signs of hunger outside the stomach, as you’ll see in the list below. But, just to give you 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 feeling “Hangry”)
  • Lack of energy
  • Headache

The only way to take care of physical hunger is to eat! Ignoring it, trying “techniques” to make it go away, or feeling guilty about this perfectly normal sensation disconnects you from your own autonomy and body trust. So now, ask yourself: do I know when I’m physically hungry and do I allow myself to eat as necessary? If not, what’s getting in the way of eating when my body asks for food? If you often don’t feel physically hungry, this doesn’t necessarily mean that your body doesn’t need fuel, it means that we might need to rely more on practical hunger until our physical hunger cues return. Chronic dieting and restriction can definitely mess with our natural hunger/fullness cues. That’s why the consistent practice of listening in can be so valuable when becoming an intuitive eater.

“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

Types of Hunger: What is Emotional Hunger?

What are the different types of hunger
Could your “cravings” for sweets actually mean that you may need more “sweetness” in your life?

Emotional hunger happens when you have an unmet emotional need that presents itself with a desire to eat food.

It’s important to recognize that emotional eating may be a normal response to difficult emotions. Eating can be a pleasurable experience in and of itself. It can also be comforting. For example, when we’re babies, we cry for hunger and feel better when fed. Thus, it makes sense that when dealing with unpleasant emotional states, turning to food to feel better is a natural response–in spite of the bad rep it gets. However, eating emotionally is NOT a sign of weakness or deficit that needs to be fixed. As with all other types of hunger, all it requires is that you sit and listen to what it’s trying to tell you.

Signs of emotional hunger

I often hear the question: How can you tell the difference between physical and emotional hunger? As mentioned before, physical hunger is a sign that your body needs food, and the bodily sensations related to it can arise gradually. It depends for the most part on how much you’ve eaten (or haven’t eaten) during the day. Emotional hunger, on the other hand, comes on quickly and is usually coupled with an uncomfortable or intense emotion which can be:

  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Joy 
  • Lack of a certain component in your life (need to be loved, to feel comfort, to have more variety, etc)

Emotional hunger is felt more in your head than in your stomach and can therefore come on an hour or two after eating. Which makes sense, since food is emotional and symbolic. Think about it. Remember that scene in Ratatouille, when Anton Ego has a flashback about his mother comforting him with the dish after he fell off his bike as a child? That’s actually a great illustration of how we give emotional meaning to certain foods, and why it’s normal (although frowned upon by diet culture–boo!) to turn to it as a way to soothe.

And while yes, it’s definitely more helpful to get to the root of your emotional needs in order to properly “feed” them, if you will, it’s perfectly OK if emotional eating is the only coping mechanism you have for the moment. You are just finding ways to care for and soothe yourself. You are not wrong, bad or “out of control.” It is diet culture that makes you believe these things about yourself.

However, when dealing with strong emotional eating issues, it’s best to work together with a therapist, registered dietitian, or both, since it may be difficult to navigate this on your own. Just knowing about the different types of hunger and what they mean may not be sufficient.

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 eventually work through whatever it is that’s really eating YOU!

It’s very common and normal to eat for reasons that have nothing to do with physical hunger. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!

Types of Hunger: What is Taste Hunger (or Mouth Hunger)?

What is taste hunger intuitive eating
TFW you have your dessert and allow yourself to eat it too!

Within the types of hunger, there’s taste hunger, which happens when something just looks, sounds, 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 we want, food obsessions begin to evaporate.

Signs of taste hunger

As mentioned above, taste hunger may feel like wanting to eat something even though you may be feeling physiologically full. You see, smell, or hear about a certain food that sounds good to you. Although it sounds counterintuitive, allowing yourself to honor your taste hunger will help prevent you from bingeing from it later. This practice also helps develop autonomy, body trust, and habituation (when you really allow yourself to eat the foods you like that were previously forbidden, the novelty eventually wears off and so does the “craving”).

Taste hunger may also appear after long periods of dieting and restrictive eating because the body is trying to stabilize itself in terms of food and energy needs.

When working with taste hunger, being intentional and mindful can be very useful. Intention can look like reminding yourself as an intuitive eater: “I allow myself to eat all kinds of foods whenever I want”. I know it sounds scary, and that’s when mindfulness comes in, especially in the beginning, when intuitive eating may feel “out of control” when one is used to diet rules.

Being mindful while honoring taste hunger helps you enjoy the food while staying attuned to the experience. Try to slow down and notice what the food:

  • looks like
  • smells like
  • tastes like
  • feels like in the mouth (texture)

Slowing down when honoring taste hunger can help you avoid getting to the point of uncomfortable fullness. By slowing down, you may realize halfway through that “Meh…this doesn’t taste as great as I thought it would”, and just simply put it down. As you practice this, over time, honoring your taste hunger will become second nature, and what used to be uncontrollable food cravings lose their hold on you.

Types of Hunger: What is Practical Hunger?

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!

Among the different types of hunger, practical hunger doesn’t really have any bodily, sensory or emotional components wrapped in it. Unless you count that food may feel unappealing when you’re eating while not physically hungry 🤔. Let’s take a look into why you may want to eat even when you’re not hungry.

How to plan for practical hunger

With practical hunger, you want to plan for:

  • What’s going to stave off my hunger if I know I won’t have access to food for awhile
  • What’s going to keep my blood sugar steady
  • What’s actually available to eat

As a personal example, my blood sugar drops drastically if I don’t eat within a certain amount of time. In this case, it’s helpful for me to have snacks in my purse if I’m out running errands and get stuck in traffic before I make it to a full meal. Planning for practical hunger may also look like eating breakfast much earlier in the morning than you’re used to because you know you have an appointment during your usual time. Although it may not feel normal, planning ahead is smart so you don’t end up with a loud, grumbling stomach a few hours into your day!

Other situations where practical hunger may be useful are:

  • During long meetings
  • On flights
  • In class
  • Before high impact physical activity
  • When you need to take a certain medication with food
  • If you’re in disordered eating recovery and following a meal plan or meal schedule

Using practical hunger to honor your hunger helps you see that it’s OK to eat even when you’re not hungry. It also helps to avoid turning Intuitive Eating into another diet or set of food rules as you experience the flexibility of its nature.

What happens when you ignore hunger?

Suppressing hunger, any of the types of hunger, will backfire and cause us to binge eat later on. It also disconnects us from our own real needs, be they physical or emotional. Unless they’re met, our needs will continue to get stronger and more persistent until we’re ready to listen to them. So, do you think you can sit with yourself and listen in? If not, what’s getting in the way? What can better support you in helping to get your needs met?

Conclusion

Summing it up, Intuitive Eating is not just about eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full. It’s about quieting the external messages we receive from diet culture which disconnects us from our body, and learning to hone into what our true needs are. And as always, please reach out to me if you need any additional support in learning to feed your hunger-whichever of the types of hunger it may be.

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