For chronic dieters feeling and honouring your hunger (the second principle of intuitive eating) can be a tricky principle to embrace. Our body sends out hunger signals for a reason – so we will eat! If you’ve been duped by diet culture for a long time, you may have heard ‘tips’ such as ‘when you get hungry have a drink, you are probably thirsty’ or ‘fill up on low-calorie air-foods to trick your body to be full’. This is all bullshit. Your body is pretty smart, we need to keep it fed with with adequate energy so it will let us know when we need to eat.
Although, for some, hunger signals are harder to recognise.
Dieting can blunt these cues and prevent us from trusting them.
Constant grazing can prevent us ever becoming hungry or full, just staying in the middle.
Poor sleep can influence hunger and satiety cues. There are various theories of how sleep influences appetite but it seems to increase ghrelin and make us more hungry.
Distractions during eating can also blunt the cues because we are not tuned into the signals.
To begin with, you may be only able to recognise the obvious signs of hunger and fullness rather than the more nuanced signs. This takes practice and time.
A note on hunger signals
Your body will not send out the same hunger signals at the same time each and everyday. The hypothalamus regulates energy intake in response to your energy needs. Different days equals different energy intakes dependent on hormonal changes, physical activity, how much you’ve eaten in the last day/few days/week, how well you slept etc. Listening to your hunger and satiety cues can help you respond to these changes.
How Do We Tune into hunger signals?
Before we eat, we can ask ourselves “Am I hungry?”. I know this sounds so simple but due to diet culture, busy lifestyles and a lack of interceptive awareness (not tuning into our body) we can often just eat when we think we should eat, rather than when our body wants to eat.
Physical hunger builds up slowly and gradually, and isn’t usually urgent. If you are physically hungry then you could also pretty much eat anything just to satisfy the hunger. There are symptoms of hunger which we can start to tune in to, here a few examples but hunger looks and feels different to everyone.
Mood: irritable, cranky, moody, low
Energy levels: fatigued, sleepy
Head: concentration reduces, dizzy, distracted
Stomach: gurgling, rumbling, emptiness, pangs, gnawing
Body: shaky, low blood sugar, salivating
How to respond to hunger signals
We can consider our hunger on a 10 unit scale. 1 is painfully hungry and 10 is painfully full. Consider 5 as the neutral – you simply aren’t full or hungry, just not thinking about food at all. Ideally we would aim to start eating when we are at about 3 or 4, when our hunger signals start firing. In the same vein, ideally we would stop eating at about a 7 or an 8, when we are starting feeling full to prevent a feeling of being uncomfortable and overly full.
It is important to take care to not become overly hungry. Of course, this isn’t possible for some of our society and it is important to recognise this privilege. But generally, we should aim to go no longer than five waking hours without eating. This is based on the fact that the carbohydrate tank in the liver runs out every three to six hours and people who often go a long time without eating overeat at the next possible opportunity – the bodies’ natural response to not knowing when it’s next meal will be.
A final note
Hunger is nuanced so it is important to remember that hunger is individual, your hunger schedule may not match someone else’s! Also, check in with your body throughout the day and during snacks and meals to enquire what your hunger level is. It is important to do this without judgement. If you are hungry then you are hungry!