AM I HUNGRY OR FULL? UNDERSTANDING THE BASICS OF APPETITE CONTROL

While the control signals for appetite are innate to our bodies, we often encounter external environments that leave us disconnected from them.  Learn more about the science behind hunger and fullness, and how you can begin to recognize them again.


BY: AMY HANNEKE, RDN, LD

Hunger and fullness may sound like a simple topic – but the louder diet culture is, the more quiet our hunger and fullness signals get.

At its core, hunger is simply a physiological mechanism that keeps us alive. It’s not something to be feared – instead, it’s something we should embrace. Like breathing, sleeping, and needing to use the bathroom, hunger is simply something we feel and respond to.

When we understand hunger and how it feels, we can respond to it better and meet our body’s needs in a way that we enjoy.

So what actually controls how often we eat?

The hypothalamus is a region in the center of your brain that uses several pathways to control your appetite. There are two parts of the hypothalamus that are especially influential in regulating it: the lateral hypothalamus (LH) and ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH).

The LH is the “hunger center” of your brain, while the VMH is the “fullness center”. When activated, the LH increases appetite, and when damaged, appetite is decreased. The same goes for the VMH and fullness.

But what controls the LH and VMH? Among other things, hormones like leptin (the fullness hormone) and ghrelin (the hunger hormone), which regulate LH and VMH as a on/off light switch as the rest of your body sends hormonal and biological cues. The cues include stress, amount of sleep, seeing food that is appetizing, and countless other factors.

The bottom line: the hypothalamus is the “action center” of hunger, where feelings like hunger and fullness are put into action.

The pathways controlling hunger are complex, with many factors that can affect and activate them. However, it can be difficult to fully experience, understand, and act on hunger under certain situations. Some scenarios in which your hunger and fullness signals are muted include:

  • Dieting – Imagine your appetite as a toddler, asking for attention. If you ignore him or her, the toddler will eventually realize that this method of getting attention isn’t working, and will go away. The same goes for hunger – the more we ignore/silence our hunger, the less we actually feel it. This means that for chronic dieters, it may be all but impossible to respond to hunger when breaking the diet mindset, because symptoms don’t exist or aren’t as prominent.
  • Eating disorder or disordered eating recovery – This is a highly similar train of thought to how dieters lose their hunger cues. If hunger isn’t responded to, it goes away and your internal awareness is muted.
  • Strong emotions and cravings: If emotionally eat or tune out while you’re eating, it’s hard to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger.

So how do you relearn how to identify physical hunger? Some symptoms to watch for include:

  • Feeling of emptiness
  • Stomach growling/gurgling/rumbling
  • Headache
  • Irritability (hanger)
  • Lightheadedness/dizziness
  • Nausea

And what do you do when hunger strikes? Diet culture would have you believe you should just squash it down and ignore it – but the most beneficial and simplest answer is simply to eat.

When we ignore hunger, we essentially tell our bodies that it’s starvation time – and a whole slew of mechanisms designed to conserve energy and slow things down, including your metabolism, will kick in.

Rather than ignoring your signals, tune in by:

  • Paying attention to your hunger signals and assess them throughout the day. This doesn’t mean you have to eat only when you feel “hungry enough”, but it can help you get a grip on what your body feels like at various stages of hunger and fullness.
  • Eat without distractions. Distracted eating can dull our fullness signals, and actually worsen our digestion. And once again, this isn’t to say that every single meal you eat will be perfectly tuned-into, and you’ll never eat in front of the TV again, but it can be a helpful tool if you’re just getting to know how hunger and fullness feel to you.

When you’re coming off of a diet (or several), it may be difficult to sense hunger and fullness – those cues actually decrease if we don’t respond to them.

To regain them, it can be helpful to aim to eat regularly (every 3-5 hours) and observe as the signals work their way back. Think of this like a cast that helps heal a broken bone – a little structure can help create trust with your body and lead to a deeper connection.

And remember, fueling both your body and soul is just as important as learning how to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger.

While food isn’t a substitute for a long talk with a friend, a therapy session, or another healthy outlet, we can’t ignore that food is comforting and the comfort it provides should be respected.

Just honor what your body asks for.

Adapted from the original article.

Amy Hanneke, RDN, LD is a Registered Dietitian and owner of Satisfy Nutrition.  Through an anti-diet approach in her nutrition coaching practice, Amy firmly believes in helping individuals live a life without restrictions, full of joy, self care, and delicious food. Learn more about Amy at Satisfy Nutrition.

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