Let's talk about hunger.
Hunger is one of your most important biological drives. It is your body's way of saying "hey, feed me!" so that it can get the food it needs to stay alive.
But what exactly IS hunger? And why is it so important?
Let's start with a brief science lesson.
After you eat, your body goes to work on digesting, storing, and utilizing the energy it just received. Once a significant portion of that energy (in the form of glucose) is used up, your blood glucose (or "blood sugar") and insulin (the hormone responsible for transporting glucose to your cells) levels will start to drop. This drop triggers a hormone to tell your brain that your body is in need of food for more energy. The hypothalamus, the part of your brain that receives these messages, releases another hormone called neuropeptide Y (NPY). It stimulates your appetite, and in particular your drive for carbohydrates, your brain's primary fuel source.
If you go too long ignoring your body's need for food, NPY signals increase driving the body to seek more food and carbohydrates. This can lead to over consumption, not because you're out of control, but because your body is literally screaming for food.
When we do eat, before those NPY signals get too strong, serotonin and leptin are produced which turn off our appetite and produce feelings of satisfaction.
Why Hunger Can Be Challenging
Hunger is a true-mind body connection. Food is so essential for your survival that both your body AND brain are involved creating your drive to eat. This causes you to feel hunger both physically and psychologically.
If you body has such efficient systems in place then why might it be hard to feel hunger at times? And why may it be even harder to honor it and eat when you are hungry?
Hunger has become complicated and nuanced, but it's not necessarily meant to be. People are being told that they need to control and suppress their hunger. There are tons of "tips and tricks" devoted to ways to reduce appetite - just do a simple google search and you'll find thousands of articles with these techniques. If you're a dieter you've probably engaged in some of these tricks as most diets involve caloric restriction and subsequent ignorance of hunger to lose weight.
Even if you're not a classic dieter, it's still possible that you've lost touch with your hunger cues. We live in a world full of busyness and distractions at every turn. If you don't take the time to listen for your hunger, it's going to be very difficult to feel it and therefore honor it.
Whether you're a dieter or chronic busy person, when you continually ignore or don't pay attention to your hunger cues, you lose touch with your body and its signals.
3 Steps to Honor Your Hunger
Maybe you've realized you've become out of tune with your hunger cues. The good news is, you can learn to listen again.
- Be mindful of your hunger.
Before you eat your next meal take a couple minutes to pause and take a few deep breaths. (Close your eyes if it helps you focus better).
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I hungry?
- What's my current hunger level? (neutral, moderately hungry, ravenous)
- How does my stomach feel? (gurgling, gnawing, growling, discomfort)
- How does my mouth feel?
- Do I feel light-headed or faint?
- Do I have a headache?
- Am I irritable or moody?
- Am I having difficulty concentrating?
- When was the last time I felt hungry?
These are all many ways that hunger can present itself in your body. However, hunger is extremely unique and maybe you've recognized other ways that you feel hunger. Because it's so individual, our hunger doesn't align perfectly with the time of day or with other's eating patterns. You may be hungry for lunch at 10:30 am while someone else isn't hungry until 12:30 pm. Your own hunger will vary from day to day too. That's all totally normal!
If you find that you don't get any signals like this, a general guideline is to eat every 3-5 hours until you can become more in tune with your signals. (This is NOT a rule, but simply a guideline). Once you are more in tune, you'll most likely find that your body follows this pattern anyway since your energy stores in your liver run out every 3-6 hours.
2. Utilize the Hunger Scale.
The hunger scale is a great tool to help you check in with your hunger on a regular basis. By using this, you can start to get reacquainted with your body and maybe even recognize some patterns emerging with your hunger.
This scale is purely objective and there is no right or wrong way to use it - it is simply a tool to increase your awareness.
A "1" on the scale is being so ravenously hungry that you may even feel physically ill.
A "10" is feeling so full and uncomfortable that you may actually feel sick.
A "5" is neutral where you are neither hungry nor full.
A happy place to be is between 3 and 8. Here you are able to feel both hunger and fullness but they aren't so intense that you feel sick and uncomfortable. There are times you may be outside of the 3-8 zone for various reasons and that's okay!
3. Other Types of Hunger.
The hunger scale seems pretty cut and dry right? Eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full? Well, not necessarily. And in fact, that type of black and white thinking is what can lead to even more rules and complications when it comes to listening to your body and honoring its needs.
- Practical hunger.
In an ideal world we would all have the perfect schedule every day where we could sit down and have the time to eat every time we hit a 3 on the hunger scale. Well unfortunately that perfect schedule doesn't always exist and sometimes we get stuck in long meetings, classes, or plane rides.
This is when planned overeating comes into play. I know you may be thinking, "Hold on, isn't that going against eating intuitively and listening to your body?". But hear me out.
Let's say you know you're going to be in a meeting from 12-3 pm. It's 11 am and you're not hungry now but you know you definitely will be in a couple hours when you're in the middle of the meeting. Making the choice to eat now may make you feel slightly fuller than usual, but it will keep you from becoming ravenous and will allow you to stay focused in your meeting.
- Taste hunger.
Food is heavily rooted in our culture and plays a large role in creating joyous experiences. Eating food because the occasion calls for it allows you to really take part in the celebration. Even if you aren't hungry, if a food sounds delicious to you, eat it! I find that this happens when traveling and you're able to experience foods you don't normally get to. You don't want to miss out so if you really want it, let yourself eat it. It's important to be able to enjoy foods without rules or guilt. Satisfaction (whether your hungry or not) is a part of eating intuitively!
- Emotional hunger.
As you begin to listen to and feel your hunger better, you may be able to distinguish your "why" behind eating. We know, as discussed earlier, that hunger has a strong mental presence. Our hypothalamus, that's responsible for cueing hunger signals, is ironically also in charge of our emotional responses. Food is naturally tied to emotions. Food is a source of comfort. Hunger is uncomfortable and eating food allows us to feel comfortable again. Eating for an emotional need receives a bad rep but it is not something to feel bad nor guilty about. I will talk about this more in depth in another post, but know that feeling emotions and eating because of those emotions is all perfectly normal.
Thoughts? Questions? Drop them in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you!