UNDERSTANDING THE SIGNS OF HUNGER, AND HOW TO EMBRACE THEM

We’ve been conditioned to think that hunger is problematic, but the real problem is in the message. Don’t allow our culture’s fixation on food restriction to silence your body’s natural needs.


BY: LINDSAY SPARKS, RDN

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:

Energy, calories, and nourishment through food.

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 that 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 (such as needing to go to the bathroom), we must start treating 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. 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: you’ve been restricting your food intake, 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. Here are a few ways to get started.

1. Use the hunger fullness scale.

One way you can practice getting in tune with your hunger cues is to use the hunger-fullness scale of 1 to 10, which is a tool to help you explore your sensations of hunger. 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, and discover what works best for you.

2. Know that every day can be different.

Another key point to remember is that 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
  • 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.

3. Be mindful of physical and emotional hunger.

Often times, physical hunger and emotional hunger may 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? 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?

Remember, learning to familiarize yourself with your cues and respond in a kind, compassionate way takes practice. Keep in mind that there is no “right” or “wrong” if you undershoot or overshoot on your hunger and fullness.

Be patient with yourself, and start enjoying life again.

Adapted from the original article.
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Lindsay Sparks, RDN is a Registered Dietitian based in Springfield, MO. In her private practice, she focuses on empowering others to embrace their bodies and live a life well-nourished. Through food, health at every size, and intuitive eating principles, she helps others cultivate meaningful, happy lives.  Learn more about Lindsay at Feed Your Spark.

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