Principle 2 of intuitive eating is to honor your hunger.
What does it mean to honor your hunger? What even is hunger? My clients struggle often with understanding the “appropriate” level of hunger to start eating. Diets and restriction can teach us that we should only eat if we are famished, we only deserve food after a certain amount of time has passed, if we have eaten a certain amount of calories, or if we have been “good” with the amount of exercise or types of food we have eaten. Doing this can lead to a whole host of problems including most importantly disconnecting you from your body’s natural hunger cues. Reconnecting with your body’s natural hunger cues, and honoring those cues, is a crucial step in the intuitive eating process.
What happens when you ignore your hunger?
Hunger triggers a primal need for food. Any form of restriction can lead to the effects of starvation even if you do not feel like you are “underweight” or think your diet is healthy. Dr. Ancel Keys performed a semi-starvation study during WWII that shed light on the many effects of restrictive food intake. The men in the study experience intense food preoccupation, unusual eating habits like eating rapidly or very slowly, hoarding food, episodes of bulimia, and out of control eating to name a few. Rat studies have shown that restricting food leads to over eating.
There are several brain chemicals that play a part in our hunger signals. When restriction takes place these signals are disrupted and typically fire away to increase food intake for survival. One example of this is how neuropeptide Y (NPY) increases when food is restricted. NPY is higher in the morning just after our nighttime fast, so imagine after any continued restriction or fasting. Elevated levels of NPY trigger increased cravings for carbohydrate rich foods. Biologically this makes sense because carbohydrates are the body’s preferred energy source and only energy source for the brain and red blood cells. Carbohydrate energy stores only last about 3-6 hours; therefore, consistent food intake (including carbohydrate rich foods) is crucial for sustained energy levels and functioning throughout the day. When we don’t have enough carbohydrate energy the body turns to breaking down protein from our diet and from our muscles.
Have you ever gone on a low carb diet and thought it worked splendidly while you stuck to it because of quick weight loss?
SORRY to burst your bubble but you lost mostly muscle and water.
For every pound of muscle lost you lose an additional 2-4 pounds of water. Not to mention how dangerous it is to break down your muscle including all of your organs when you are eating low carb or even just going to long in the day without replenishing your carbohydrate stores.
Quick note on the Keto diet – After sustained period of carbohydrate restriction the body will break down fat to turn into ketones for energy, but only about 50% of your brain can use these ketones; therefore, you are still starving your brain and body!
SCARED of HUNGER?
The fear of eating too much can lead to different scenarios where one may eat very little and try to control food to avoid overeating/diet backlash, while others may fear getting too hungry because of it’s previous resulting binges and therefore try to avoid excessive hunger by eating all day or filling up on non or low caloric foods and beverages. Note that if you are excessively hungry you have not chance of moderation with your food intake and will likely eat until you are excessively full. Learning to honor subtle hunger can increase satisfaction and balance with your food intake.
What does hunger feel like?
Hunger isn’t all about the stomach. There are several ways that our bodies tell us we need food. Tuning in regularly can help you to become more familiar with these different cues. Initial hunger can be noticed by a shift in energy or overall mood to a lower state. Hunger can be detected in the head by a slight headache, increased thoughts about food, or decreased concentration. Hunger may be experienced in the body by tightness in the throat, salivation at the thought of food, or a rumbling or empty feeling in the stomach.
To honor your hunger – practice allowing yourself to have a meal or snack whenever you experience the above sensations. Remember that waiting longer or pushing off eating will only lead to negative consequences including feeling out of control with food.
Feel like you are always hungry?
Note that if you have a history of restricting yourself, learning your hunger may lead to eating more often than you think you "should." You may also be trying to fill yourself with foods that aren't satisfying and leave you feeling hungry quickly after a meal or snack (I'll discuss this more in a follow up blog on fullness) If you are always wanting food but not feeling the physical signs of hunger, this may be a sign that you are using food to cope with your emotions (this will also be discussed in future blog posts) but remember if you do eat out of emotional reasons and your body wasn't actually hungry, don't beat yourself up, this is just part of the learning experience.
*** Disclaimer: If you are not connecting to hunger until it feels ravenous including severe fatigue, weakness, light headedness, nausea or stabbing stomach pain this is an extreme level of hunger. You may need the individual support of a dietitian to understand the amount of food that is adequate or necessary for your body. If you have struggled with an eating disorder, you will likely not be able to honor your hunger right off the bat, this will take time and more nutritional guidance to re-nourish your body before being able to honor your hunger.
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