“I’m finding it so difficult to stick to honoring my hunger and not eating when I’m not hungry! I feel bad to eat if I don’t feel hunger but then I’m craving all the things. Help!”
Do you struggle with the same concern?
Okay, let’s talk about hunger.
First, let’s explain the role of hunger and its importance.
How Hunger Works
When you sense hunger in the form of a growling stomach, low energy, irritable mood, or light headed – that’s your body sending you all the signals that it’s utilized all the energy from the last meal and it now needs more energy to continue functioning and living aka it needs more food!
When you don’t honor your hunger in time and push off meal time you lead your body to a state of primal hunger where your body feels its at risk of being denied the energy it needs to live. It feels its survival is threatened. You’ll start to think about food and have intense cravings and -when you do eat you are more likely to reach for refined food choices (high sugar and fat) and eat lots of it as your body tries to get energy STAT.
Which is why honoring hunger in time plays such an important role in respecting your fullness and preventing overeating.
Here is where it can get confusing. Many people when they first learn about listening to their body and eating according to its needs (aka Intuitive Eating) tend to put all their focus on the principles of hunger and fullness and feel they should only eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.
This just turns intuitive eating into another diet because the truth is, it’s not practical to eat in this way all the time and if your expectation is to only eat when you are hungry and never overeat – it sets you up for frustration with your eating habits. There will be times where you’ll need to practice flexibility around hunger and fullness.
There is also more than just one type of hunger and its important to honor them all in order to eat in a way that feels good and contributes to a healthy relationship with food and sustainable health.
So if you’re feeling confused about how you should be honoring hunger, let’s go through them.
1. Physical Hunger
So this one is probably the most obvious one to honor. This is when you’ve gone for a period of time without eating and your body sends you the signals that you need to again with a growling stomach, low energy etc. You clearly need to eat something and honor that hunger. The answer here is EAT!
Note: it may initially be challenging to recognize and honor hunger cues if you have a history of restricted eating or dieting which has blunted your ability to trust your body and listen. In this case, practice eating consistently throughout the day and checking in between 2 to 4 hours to assess energy levels and if, based on the logic of your last meal, you need to eat something. With time you’ll begin reconnecting and sensing your internal cues.
2. Mental Hunger
Sometimes you are physically full but have a craving or are in the mood for some chocolate just for the pleasure of it. Or perhaps you are at a wedding and everyone is enjoying the wedding cake and commenting on how delicious it is and you’d like to try a piece but are not really hungry.
Eating for pleasure is not bad! You don’t have to be physically hungry to enjoy food. The key here is to assess for yourself if this will be of benefit to you.
For example, if everyone is enjoying wedding cake and you want some, too – will you feel deprived if you don’t allow yourself any? Will you feel left out?
Food connects us and its okay to enjoy food just for the pleasure of it or for social bonding. Its asking, how much feels good to me? And if you’re going to say “no” – then what are your intentions? Is it because you believe you are being “bad” if you eat cake when you’re not hungry, or is it because you know your body just won’t’ feel as good if you do?
Its okay to say ‘yes’ just as it is okay to say ‘no’ – it’s all about what your intention is and what is right for you!
Note: if you are at the beginning stages of making peace with food and giving yourself permission to eat, you may experience heightened mental hunger where you can’t stop craving and eating certain foods that were previously off limits. This is in response to the prolonged period of restriction you have experienced (physical or mental) and rest assured it is just a phase and it will pass once your body can trust that it will have access to all foods and receive the nourishment it needs,and you know you can enjoy these foods when you want to. In the meantime, practice bringing awareness to how these foods make your body feel and lean into that in making food decisions. Trying to resist this mental hunger will likely result in more overeating or binge eating in the future.
3. Planned Hunger
Here is where practicality comes in.
You may not always be able to eat or have access to food exactly when you are at the perfect hunger level to eat. Perhaps you have a long meeting coming up where eating is not practical or an exam to take. Maybe you are going out to eat but you know that by the time the food comes you’ll be starving. This is where you put Planned Hunger into practice. You plan ahead of time for the hunger that is to come.
This means planning snacks and meals ahead of time if you need to and eating something even when you aren’t hungry so that you don’t find yourself in a situation later where you are starving without an opportunity to eat and then inhaling your food when you do finally access food.
For example, if you have a 2 hour meeting coming up that will go through lunch – maybe eating half the sandwich you brought for lunch before the meeting so you can concentrate through the meeting and come to lunch afterwards with a comfortable level of hunger.
If you have a long trip ahead, it means planning snacks and meals to go – even if you many not be in the mood of them later.
If it’s going to eat out when you are already hungry, its eating a small snack so you’re not famished by the time you get there, sit down, and order – and then want to inhale the food instead of being present and enjoying it.
Remember that hunger and fullness are not the end all be all to your food choices, and that feeling pressured to eat only when physically hungry or stop when you are perfectly full can quickly turn into external rules and feel like a diet.
It’s important to honor all types of hunger in order prevent overeating or binge eating habits in the long run and have a healthy relationship with food.
What’s most important is eating in a way that feels good and works for YOU! Get direct experience with flexibility and practically to figure out what that looks like for you.
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