When you start to practice intuitive eating and try to honor your hunger, you might find that you and your body are less in sync than you thought. One of the effects of dieting is a disconnect with your hunger cues and a distrust of what you are feeling vs what you have been told. When you come from a history of dieting, you are told to stop listening to your body and eat based on external cues/factors like time of day, what you ate earlier, what you’re doing later, whether or not you’ve exercised, what other people are eating, or social pressures.
We have been told so many things about how we should feel that we can no longer recognize what we are feeling. Our bodies try hard to keep us alive by sending messages like “you are hungry” in the form of stomach pains and irritability (as we get close to being over-hungry), but if ignored too often, these signals will stop coming. You might have to work to regain that trust. This disconnect is only one of the many symptoms created by dieting and food restriction, but it is a big one.
If you have been stuck in the cycle of dieting and restricting, feel disconnected from your body, and feel like you can’t trust what your body is telling you, honoring your hunger is a necessary part of the process. This will take time and focus, but you can learn to feel hunger again. In this post, we will explore the four types of hunger we might feel and some cues you can look for as you begin to listen to your body again. Remember that hunger signals show up differently for each person, and what I’ve described in this post might not be your reality - stay curious about this.
The Biology of Hunger
Our bodies are beautiful and complicated organisms with more built-in features than you might realize. Our hunger, the grumbles in our tummy, and the intense thoughts about food are our body’s way of telling us that we need energy! What we interpret as ‘annoying cravings’ for food is the feeling triggered by the ghrelin hormone. Ghrelin is released when your blood sugar is low… AKA, you need food now!
When you are hungry, you may feel pains in your stomach, like sharp cramps or difficulty concentrating, mood swings, brain fog, fatigue, irritability, and frustration. Hunger affects our bodies physically and mentally. We are not working to the best of our abilities when hungry. You aren’t doing yourself any good by forcing yourself to stave off the hunger for another two hours until noon.
Thanks to diet culture and those external cues telling us not to trust our bodies, we are less connected to ourselves. After spending years in the diet cycle, it is hard to interpret those messages - they can be seen as annoying. External cues like the time of day and how much or what you ate earlier are speaking louder than your internal voice.
Understanding the disconnect
It is not your fault you might be struggling with this - society, the media, and our busy schedules all play a role. Of course, dieting and restricting play a significant part, but that wasn’t necessarily your choice. Diet culture runs deep through generations and is woven into society, at schools, the workplace, and our extracurriculars. Society has focused on diet culture, and the constant pursuit of thinness runs deep. I’ll mention this a few times in the Intuitive Eating series, but you weren’t born with these beliefs. They were taught to you over the years.
When we get busy, overwhelmed, stressed, and tired, making time for food can be challenging - it’s often seen as a hassle or something that takes too much time out of the day. You might be skipping meals because your schedule isn’t allowing them or because you are not in the mood, and that feeling is valid. We have all been there, and I know I don’t have to tell you that prioritizing your well-being should come first. I say this more because you need to know that you might create a more significant problem when you skip breakfast or keep pushing off that next meal… It feeds the diet cycle.
Other external factors that have nothing to do with diet culture might also play a role. Some medications or mental and physical health issues might interfere with your appetite. People with anxiety and depression and those who are neurodivergent (ADHD, autism) can often struggle to remember or have the energy to eat. GI issues and pain can also interrupt our signals and make eating difficult as well. Intense exercise and physical activity may also temporarily suppress hunger. If you struggle with low appetite and are truly unable to feel any hunger signals, these areas where more structured eating can be super beneficial. Reach out, and let's see how we can work together to set you up with a routine where you know you are meeting your body's needs and doing what you can despite not feeling those cues!
The disconnect between you and your hunger might come from multiple things, and it will be complicated to unravel the knots, but that’s where intuitive eating comes in.
Getting to Know Your Hunger
Intuitive eating is mainly about learning to turn the volume down on those external cues and start to be aware of the internal cues and sensations our bodies give us every day. It is a process, but when you work through it and eat on your body’s schedule, you will notice improvements in your energy, mental focus, and mood and reap the benefits of trusting your body… hello empowerment!
Once we become aware of our hunger cues, we can pay more attention to these feelings/sensations and make informed decisions based on them. Of course, listening is not the same as trusting. That will come with time. When we come to trust the signals from our body, those external cues don’t have as much influence.
Oddly, we have gone so far off the path because we are BORN able to listen and trust our hunger signals. Think of infants and babies and the signs they give us when hungry or full. They don’t question themselves until the dysfunctional and skewed diet culture ways of thinking are taught to them.
Four Different Types of Hunger
Hunger is not a lack of willpower or a sign of addiction, but it’s essential to know that it is not only a sign that you need fuel. Part of healing your relationship with food and honoring your hunger is knowing you are allowed to eat when you are hungry and when you are not! Feeling like you have to wait for those physical cues to show up, like the growling stomach, lightheadedness, and fatigue, is false. There are other kinds of hunger, too; listening to those is just as important. The key point is that you don’t need to search for a reason to justify your eating; you can just eat.
Physical Hunger is the biological need to eat accompanied by those physical cues and possibly an intense focus on food.
Taste Hunger is the craving for a food or flavor just because you want it. You might crave a specific taste because it brings you comfort, makes you happy, or just because you thought of it and it sounds delicious right now.
Emotional hunger is the desire to eat to fulfill an emotional need. Food is a coping mechanism, but that’s not to say that it is a “bad thing” if it helps us when needed.
Practical hunger is when you eat to prevent future discomfort. Just because you are not hungry now doesn’t mean you won’t be later, and eating then might not be convenient.
Acknowledging that hunger shows up differently for everyone, at different times, and for different reasons, without moralizing or judging it, is a big step in the healing process. Being able to eat because you want to, because the food tastes good, or because you are preventing future issues from arising is normal and a part of human life… you don’t need to wait until you are over-hungry.
This is possible for you too inside my 1:1 Intuitive Eating and Body Image Coaching Program. Inside my coaching I empower my clients, just like you, to take Intuitive Eating beyond the kitchen so that you can unlock the ability to stop second guessing every meal, discover self compassion, and finally begin to feel at home in your body.
When the feeling of guilt comes up after overeating, when you are experiencing negative self-talk every time you step in front of the mirror, or when you are faced with the temptation of starting a new diet every monday, my program is unique because it is founded on support and accountability. You will have me there with you every step of the way. I understand you because I was you.
If you are curious about implementing this in your life, I invite you to join me. Your first step starts with filling out an application so we can chat and figure out if my coaching is the best fit for you.
The Hunger Fullness Scale
Most of the time, we notice hunger/fullness when we are already over-hungry or past fullness, and that’s actually when it is too late. You are probably already uncomfortable and feeling the adverse effects. This is because after dieting, we do not know how to listen for those earlier signs of hunger or fullness! Learning to pick up on the early signs of hunger and fullness is the first step to honoring your hunger. If you are just starting this journey, you might want to use the hunger fullness scale. This is a practical tool to help you build awareness in your body. It is an easy-to-use scale from 0-10 to help you identify how hungry/full you are. This scale is not a set of rules to dictate when you should or shouldn’t eat. Instead, it is to help you recognize the signs to decide when you want to eat and have had enough.
*adapted from Intuitive Eating, 4th edition: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch.
Here’s a tip I share with my clients: print out a hunger fullness scale, and as you begin to get curious about what early hunger or fullness might feel like, jot those sensations down so you can start building your own hunger fullness scale that’s specific to you!
Tips to Start Honoring Your Hunger
Identify where you are on the hunger/fullness scale before, partway through, and after eating. Think about and notice the sensations that you are feeling in your body. Use this to make decisions about food throughout the day.
Ensure that you eat consistently. If you lack the cues to tell you when to eat, you need to use other methods to ensure you are nourished and eating enough. Make it part of your routine to check in with yourself throughout the day to ensure you get what you need. Set a reminder on your phone, put a sticky note on your computer monitor…
Fed is the best practice when you are healing your relationship with food. By this, I mean stress less about what exactly you are eating. Eat what you have available, what is accessible, and what you like rather than not eating.
Avoid comparisons to others’ food needs by unfollowing, deleting, and blocking any social accounts or media outlets that are making you feel bad for what you are eating. What I eat in a day videos are unhelpful. If you feel a physical hunger cue and try to justify waiting another hour, ask yourself why.
Treat yourself with compassion and give yourself some grace. It’s okay to overeat sometimes, and there’s no sense in beating yourself up for it - it happens to all of us. Recognize the four types of hunger, but remember that you don’t need to justify your eating.
Know that your food needs change constantly due to energy output, weather, mood, and other seemingly unrelated things. You might want to eat more or less than you did yesterday, and that’s ok. Approach your hunger sensations with curiosity, not judgment.
This is just the beginning of your Intuitive Eating practice and the process of listening to your body. This principle is about HONORING your hunger, which means eating when you feel it! Eat when you feel hungry! Honor the sensations/signals that your body is sending you! Drown out the external cues and learn to trust yourself again. We are born with the ability to understand and feel our hunger, and unfortunately, we lose that ability due to the loud voices of diet culture. This is a process of unlearning and listening. Quiet reflection and self-awareness will help you heal your relationship with food and honor your hunger. Welcome to the beginning of listening to your body and rebuilding body trust! Your first step starts here, I can’t wait to see your name in my inbox and begin the journey towards finally feeling at home, and empowered in your body again.