How did eating get so complicated?
Imagine the sound of a crying newborn baby. That baby knows when he’s hungry and makes sure to let his caregivers know very loudly! By the time we are adults, many of us have difficulty sensing when our bodies feel hungry for a wide variety of reasons.
Today I will explore some of the challenges to being able to sense, and respond to our body’s biological hunger.
Honoring Hunger is an Important Principle of Intuitive Eating
“Keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise you can trigger a primal drive to overeat. Once you reach the moment of excessive hunger, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant. Though diet culture paints hunger as an enemy to fear, it’s actually your body communicating a basic need (necessary for life, not shameful!). Every time you honor hunger, you are rebuilding trust in yourself and in food.”
~Intuitive Eating, Principle 2, Tribole and Resch
One of the many reasons for ignoring hunger is a “disconnection” between mind and body. In our diet culture, we are literally trained to ignore our body’s internal cues of hunger. How often can you remember noticing your hunger, yet telling yourself that you “just ate” or that you need to wait until the next meal or snack on your eating plan? Or perhaps you fear hunger, worrying instead that responding to hunger will somehow lead to excessive eating. Or perhaps you are recovering from an eating disorder and you have lost touch with the normal bodily cues of hunger and fullness.
Diet culture makes one think that food is the enemy, rather than recognizing that hunger is your body’s brilliant way of communicating a basic need. And fulfilling one of our basic needs is an act of self-care. Every time you honor hunger, you are rebuilding self-trust and taking care of yourself.
What does biological hunger feel like?
Many people can recognize extremes in hunger and fullness, but have a harder time with its subtle nuances. Physical hunger can be felt as “hunger” pangs in the stomach, but can also be felt as a headache, stomach pain, growling or gurgling, feeling “empty,” feeling dizzy, having trouble concentrating, feeling tired, weak, shaky or nauseous, feeling “hangry;” irritable, angry, cranky, or even thinking about food!
Rating Your Hunger
I encourage my clients to use a Hunger and Fullness Scale when they feel ready. It is a useful tool for assessing your hunger levels before you eat. It can also train you to see how different types and amounts of food affect you, and recognize when the urge to eat has been triggered by something other than hunger. This scale is not intended to set strict guidelines about when you should eat; rather, it helps you develop a greater awareness of your body’s subtle signals.
Download your own copy of this Hunger Fullness Scale to keep and use as a reference.
How to Use a Hunger – Fullness Scale
There are no right or wrong answers here. Try to approach hunger with compassionate, nonjudgmental curiosity. Be patient as you practice – you’ve been immersed in diet culture and need time and space to learn.
Prior to a meal or snack, take a few deep breaths, check-in with your body, and just Notice. Ask yourself, “Am I Hungry?” Then look at the varying descriptions of hunger levels.
Are you at a “1” and have waited so long to eat a meal that you’re ravenous? Notice how quickly you might eat your food if you start when you’re ravenous.
What might the eating experience feel like if you were at a “5” and not particularly hungry?
Would it feel different if you were at a “3” and noticed strong signals to eat? How might the enjoyment of your meal change?
These are just a few examples of using a hunger scale.
I invite you to take some time “noticing” your levels of hunger before meals and snacks, and see if there are any patterns you discover!
Nourishing our bodies for physical hunger is essential to life. Eating is as important to our well-being as sleeping or breathing. There are times, however, that we eat for reasons other than hunger. For example, we might eat in response to strong emotions: feeling sad, angry, or even happy. The food might serve as a coping strategy in that moment when all else fails!
We might eat because we are in proximity to foods and they smell and look so yummy (Freshly baked Cinnabon’s at the mall anyone?).
We might eat because a food just tastes so delicious that we don’t want to end the meal.
None of these aspects of eating “emotionally” are problematic. Food is meant to be enjoyed and it’s a perfectly normal way of connecting with family and friends.
However, when food becomes the ONLY coping strategy for strong emotions and we use it to “numb out,” it does indeed become problematic.
I will share more on emotional eating in my next article, so watch for that!
Check out Dipping Your Toes into Intuitive Eating!
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You will find a new world of food freedom when you finally let go of diets and diet mentality. Whether you are recovered/recovering from an eating disorder or struggling with yo-yo dieting, trying to learn how to work with the changes of your body as you head into menopause and beyond, you will find the common sense in learning to be “attuned” with your body.
Erica Leon is a Registered Dietitian and practices from a Health at Every Size (HAES®) lens. She is certified as an eating disorder specialist and is passionate about helping women at midlife, menopause and beyond to make peace with food and body image.
Erica is a highly sensitive nutrition therapist who takes the time to learn where you or your family are in the pursuit of health. Respectful of your individual needs and lifestyle, she will provide an honest assessment of whether or not you are a good fit to work together. Click here to schedule a 15-minute Discovery Call with Erica to let us know about your needs, and to see which of our Dietitians is the best fit for you!
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