How to Get to Know (and Embrace) Your Hunger Cues

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This post is a part of my blog series on the principles of intuitive eating. If you are new around here, check out my initial post on what intuitive eating is for more information.

Diet culture often tells us that hunger is something to be feared or suppressed. Chronic dieters often feel like hunger is problematic and something to be controlled. The only thing we should be trying to quell our hunger with is what this cue is asking for – FOOD (aka energy, calories, nourishment). Intentionally depriving the body of energy is like trying to hold your breath. Eventually, you have to come up for air. This constant battle of not providing the body with what it’s asking for can lead to uncomfortable side effects, metabolic harm, and “primal” hunger (which may result in overeating).

Hunger is a normal, biological signal that should be welcomed and embraced. It means that your body is working for you and trying to keep you alive! Just like we respond to other signals our body gives us (like needing to go to the bathroom), we should treat our hunger the same way. Becoming attuned to and responding to your body’s hunger signals appropriately is a key component to fostering a healthy relationship with food and building trust that your body can self-regulate energy intake. 

Hunger can be experienced in a variety of ways and differs from person to person. It is a subjective feeling with many variances. Here are some of the ways you may sense hunger:

  • Stomach: growling or empty feeling
  • Head: foggy thinking, headache, light-headedness, dizzy, inability to focus or concentrate, thoughts drifting to food or thinking about what sounds good to eat
  • Mood: feeling cranky/irritable (aka “hanger”), numb, or apathetic
  • Energy: decreased energy levels, sluggish, or lethargic

What happens if you don’t feel hunger cues or know what the signals feel like? There are several possible reasons for hunger cues seeming as though they don't exist or for feeling unsure of what they are. For example, if you’ve been restricting your food intake/dieting, are recovering from an eating disorder, have a chronic illness, or are on certain medications. Please keep in mind that these examples are just that - examples. They don’t capture all of the complexities. There is no “right” or “wrong” answer when it comes to hunger; the key is to know that your body needs adequate energy and eating is a way to care for your body. It can take time to become familiar with your individual nuances of hunger, especially if you have been out of touch with them for some time.

One way you can practice getting in tune with your hunger cues is to use the hunger-fullness scale (see graphic below). It is a tool to help you explore your sensations of hunger.

  Hunger/Fullness Scale adapted from the  Intuitive Eating  book.

Hunger/Fullness Scale adapted from the Intuitive Eating book.

 

Generally, the body needs energy intake every 3-4 hours, as this is when hunger hormones naturally rise and fall. If you go longer than 5-6 hours without eating, you may experience a drop in your blood sugar, which can lead to those uncomfortable feelings of hunger (being a 0-2 on the scale). It typically feels best to be at about a 3-4 on the hunger scale when sitting down to a meal or a snack. A common recommendation is to have at least three meals a day, with three food groups (carb, protein, fat), about every three hours. Snacks may also be needed in between meals. Again, these are guidelines, not rules. Listen to your body! Discover what works best for you. Work with your dietitian for individualized recommendations.

Additionally, your hunger cues may fluctuate day to day. It’s completely normal to experience days where you are hungrier (or less hungry) than others. Some factors that can influence hunger levels include: physical activity level, chronic stress, lack of sleep, menstrual cycles, and the composition of your meals/snacks. Have faith that your body can balance out your energy intake over time and eating the exact same amount every day is not only unrealistic, but nearly impossible. We are not robots! We may also have days where we need to eat for practical reasons. For instance, we may not be super hungry, but know we need to eat so that we don't end up underfed or ravenous later on.

One last thing I want to note is that physical hunger and emotional hunger might be confusing and difficult to distinguish. Emotional eating/hunger is not a “bad” thing. Eating, food, and hunger IS innately emotional. Did you know that hunger is technically an emotion in of itself? It's true! The key is to ask yourself, do I sense that I am often trying to use food to cope with my emotions? how does this make me feel? do I want to keep doing this? This is a topic that I plan to address in future posts on intuitive eating, specifically for principle seven, where I will dive into coping with your feelings without using food. For now, I will provide this graphic from dietitian Kylie Mitchell, of at Immaeatthat, to help give some insight on physical vs emotional hunger.

 

  Image credit:  Immaeatthat

Image credit: Immaeatthat

I hope this overview of honoring and embracing your hunger cues provides you with some tools and insights on your intuitive eating journey. Learning to familiarize yourself with your cues and respond in a kind, compassionate way takes practice. Keep in mind intuitive eating is not a "hunger/fullness diet" and you aren't "doing it wrong" if you undershoot or overshoot on your hunger/fullness. Be patient with yourself and reach out for support if you need additional help or guidance!