What is Hunger and How Can You Honor It

When you were younger, it may have been as simple as whenever your belly rumbled, you got yourself a snack. Your body was telling you it was hungry and you fed it in response.

Now, we may not even be attuned to our body’s hunger signals. We may have desperately tried to silence these signals through dieting and deprivation. Or we may keep ourselves full at all times so we never have to experience the emptiness of hunger.

We may associate hunger with binging. That’s because when we get overly hungry, we’re ready to eat just about anything and we want all of it. We may not trust that we’re going to eat again, so we feast. This is one reason why it’s important to listen to your hunger and feed yourself before you get too ravenous.

What Exactly is Hunger?

Hunger exists to keep us alive. It drives us to eat when certain hormones are released and other hormones then act to tell our brains that we’re full. These hormones may be out of balance for some people, causing difficulty distinguishing between hunger and fullness. It is possible to re-train your brain to recognize hunger and fullness for many people.

What Does Hunger Feel Like?

Some people may not actually ever feel hungry. This can be from years of dieting, certain medications or medical conditions, or ignoring hunger due to being too busy. Hunger can manifest in a mild gurgling or gnawing in the stomach, growling noises, light-headedness, difficulty concentrating, uncomfortable stomach pain, irritability, feeling faint, or headache. Your hunger may feel different day to day while you’re still getting in touch with it.

How Can You Honor Your Hunger?

First of all, you’ll need to recognize your hunger when it’s present. A hunger and fullness journal can be extremely helpful. Rate your hunger on a scale from 1-10.

10- You’ve eaten so much you feel like you could vomit. You may need to unbutton your pants and moving is painful.

9- You’re feeling very full and sick. Your stomach is distended and there’s no more room for food. You may have indigestion or a headache.

8- You’re uncomfortable, but there’s still room for more food.

7- You’re feeling a bit too satisfied and feeling some discomfort in the belly. Eating beyond this point is no longer out of hunger.

6- You feel good and sense food comfortably in your stomach.

5- You feel neither hunger nor fullness. You’re comfortable with or without food.

4- You’re hungry, but can wait a bit before eating.

3- You’re uncomfortable and want to eat something quickly.

2- You’re angry, irritable, your head hurts and you don’t care what you eat as long as it’s fast and in large quantity.

1- Hunger begins to subside as you feel less energy, less focus, and less desire for movement. Your headache continues and there may be an acidic feeling in the stomach.

This hunger/fullness scale is merely an observation. You don’t always need to start eating at a 4 and stop at a 6. You’re getting to know your body and what works for it. Some people turn eating for hunger and fullness into a diet and feel they can never allow themselves to get fuller than a certain number. But it’s not a diet; it’s just about being aware and in tune with your body.

A body scan every couple of hours, scanning from head to stomach for feelings of hunger or thirst can be helpful. Also, a reminder to eat every couple of hours may be beneficial, as well. It’s easy and discrete to set a reminder on your phone. And, once you start eating more regularly, your body will adjust and start to feel hungry around your mealtimes.

What about Emotional Hunger?

Emotional hunger is real and it can drive us to eat, even though no amount of food will ever satisfy the emotional hunger. Instead, connection to ourselves or others, self-care, a release of feelings, or getting our needs met can satisfy emotional hunger. But how do we know if we’re experiencing emotional hunger or physical hunger?

Emotional Hunger:
– Comes on suddenly
– Must be satisfied instantly
– Makes you crave specific comfort foods
– Makes you eat quickly in private
– Does not satisfy you when you’re full
– Causes feelings of shame, guilt, or powerlessness after eating

Physical Hunger:
– Comes on gradually
– Can wait
– Allows you to choose between different foods
– Allows you to eat with others
– Satisfies your hunger when you’re full
– Does not make you feel bad about yourself after eating

Can I Eat if I’m Not Hungry?

We often eat out of boredom, loneliness, sadness, or even joy. We eat with other people and sometimes we eat more because the food tastes good . We’re rarely ever actually hungry when it’s time for cake, but if you’re at a birthday party, it’s normal to enjoy a piece of cake. If it’s good, maybe you eat the whole thing or ask for another piece. If you don’t like it, maybe you only take a few bites.

We don’t always need to eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full. That is simply a guideline, not a rule. Life isn’t so predictable that we can always manage to only eat when we’re hungry and stop the moment we’re full. That doesn’t allow us to enjoy food. So leave behind the judgment when you find yourself eating outside of hunger or reaching a 10 on the fullness scale. You’ll learn what feels good for your body and begin to honor your hunger and fullness.

If you want to explore your hunger and fullness further, it may be time to work with a registered dietitian nutritionist. Find out more about working with me.

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Seeking additional support in your relationship with food and your body and wanting to learn more about intuitive eating? In search of an experienced eating disorder registered dietitian nutritionist in the Huntington, New York area or virtually in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut? Send Christina an email to learn more about 1:1 nutrition therapy sessions!

Published by Christina Frangione, MS, RD, CDN, RYT

Christina Frangione, MS, RD, CDN, RYT is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist serving the Long Island, New York City, and New York State areas helping clients with eating disorders and disordered eating recover their relationship with food and their body. She utilizes a Health at Every Size® approach and supports Intuitive Eating and knows that while she is the food and nutrition expert, you are the expert of your body and life.

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