Intuitive Eating Basics // Principle 2 - Honour Your Hunger

Recap: the Intuitive Eating Principles

Just to recap following my last post in this series, Intuitive Eating is made up of 10 foundational principles that ultimately aim to help us get back in tune with our internal cues, move away from external cues like food rules and restrictions, and help us to trust our body again. These principles include:

1. Reject the diet mentality

2. Honour your hunger

3. Make peace with food

4. Challenge the food police

5. Respect your fullness

6. Discover the satisfaction factor

7. Honour your feelings without using food

8. Respect your body

9. Exercise - Feel the difference

10. Honour your health

Remember to take some time to listen to these podcast episodes for an overview of what Intuitive Eating is (and isn’t):

And two must-read books:

principle 2: honour your hunger

 
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In the society that we live in, hunger is viewed as something that we shouldn’t feel, particularly if it is fairly soon after we’ve eaten a meal or a snack. Diet culture says that hunger is something that we should try and ignore, pacify with foods that don’t fill us or sustain us like rice cakes and celery sticks, a glass of water, coffee, tea or chewing gum. In our society the idea of needing to eat more than the amounts and types of foods prescribed either by serving size suggestions, what is deemed as ‘normal’, or what a specific diet suggests is largely frowned upon. The thing is, it’s a bit crazy when you take some time to sit down and think about it - there are no other body cues that we try to suppress the way we do with hunger. For example, if you need to do a wee, you’ll find a bathroom so that you can go to the loo, and when you need to get some sleep, although you may suppress it for a little while (we can’t really nap at work haha), it is something that you will honour when you are able to because if you don’t you won’t be able to function at your optimal capacity.

If you have been on the diet bandwagon for years, you are probably used to silencing your hunger signals rather than honouring and satisfying your physical hunger by eating food. The thing is that when we habitually ignore our hunger signals over time we become less able to recognise and respond to them. If you’ve been through the diet cycle a number of times it is likely that you’ll be a bit out of touch with your hunger and fullness cues [1]. Here’s the deal though (and make a note of this, because it’s important):

  • Hunger is normal.

  • Hunger is healthy.

  • Hunger tells you that your body is working as it should.

  • Hunger is a normal biological signal that should be welcomed and embraced.

  • Hunger plays a part in keeping you alive.

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The physiology of hunger

Whilst dieting may not look quite like starvation from the outside, as far as your body is concerned it will feel like it’s living in a famine state if you chronically restrict your food intake below what your body needs (even more so if you’re expending lots of energy at the same time). Believe it or not, our bodies naturally compensate for this ‘starvation’ through some pretty powerful biological and psychological mechanisms, which the authors of Intuitive Eating describe as Primal Hunger [2]. A great place to start if you want to learn more about how this primal hunger can lead to food obsession, disordered eating behaviours, and a negative effect on mood is to read about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment (here is a great summary / commentary).

Some of the mechanisms that trigger eating include a biological drive to eat triggered by hormones and neurotransmitters that coordinate eating behaviour with our body’s biological need, heightened digestion (including increased salivation and secretion of digestive hormones), lowering of energy requirements / metabolic rate. Hunger is controlled by complex interactions between hormones and neurotransmitters (signalling molecules), organs and tissues, and our brain. Some of these hormones and neurotransmitters include [1,2]:

  • Ghrelin - This is the hormone that increases overall hunger and sends the signal to your brain that it’s time to eat something. If you ignore hunger, your body will produce more ghrelin in response because your body is signalling that it needs food and your body is hardwired to survive! Ghrelin levels will typically decrease in response to eating enough (however it’s worth noting that it may stay elevated as a response to being in a calorie deficit, and may even remain elevated for up to a year after dieting).

  • Neuropeptide Y - This hormone increases your appetite specifically for carbohydrates. It is stimulated by ghrelin, and like ghrelin the longer you choose to ignore the desire for carbohydrates, the more the cravings will increase to the point where you just want to dive into a big bowl of pasta. NPY levels are naturally highest in the morning as your body’s way of refilling liver and muscle glycogen stores following an overnight fast. When we eat carbohydrates, our body produces more serotonin, which in turn stops the production of NPY and reduces the desire for carbohydrates.

Silencing hunger

Do you struggle to recognise your hunger, and end up going from feeling ok to hangry and absolutely ravenous without much room in between? Within the context of diet culture, we tend to be made to feel guilty and ashamed for needing to eat more than or out of the structure of what is prescribed by a certain diet / ‘lifestyle’ programme. As women, we are often also made to feel like we should eat teeny tiny portions, and are surrounded by messages like ‘eat half of what you order, and take the rest home with you’ [1]. Having regular hunger signals is a good sign of overall metabolic health, but habitually ignoring them can result in them atrophying over time and thus compromising our ability to respond to them normally [1]. So what things could have caused you to no longer be able to feel sensations of hunger properly anymore?

  1. Numbing / pacifying hunger - People often turn to things like diet beverages, coffee, tea, chewing gum, celery sticks etc. to avert hunger pangs.

  2. Dieting - When we are on a diet, we become used to denying our hunger when it comes knocking on the door because our meal plan says that we aren’t allowed to eat anything.

  3. Busyness and chaos - It’s easier to suppress or ignore hunger when we keep ourselves really busy and distracted.

  4. Skipping breakfast

LEARNING TO HONOUR YOUR HUNGER

One of the first steps to becoming a ‘normal’ eater and living a life free from dieting and restriction is to learn how to honour your hunger. If you have been on the diet merry-go-round for years your body will most likely be used to periods of ‘famine’, and won’t be able to trust that it will have access to food when it is needed. Your body needs to be reconditioned and learn consistently that it will have access to food whenever it is needed [2]. It’s a good idea to start checking in with your body and ask yourself at regular intervals throughout the day [2]:

  • “Am I hungry?” (yes / no / maybe)

  • “How hungry am I?” (learn more about using the Hunger-Fullness Scale below)

First up, you need to learn to listen to your body and recognise what hunger feels like [1,2]. Although in the beginning you may be able to recognise ravenous hunger, it can be more difficult to notice the more nuanced, gentle signs of hunger - particularly after silencing them for so long. Here are a few examples of hunger sensations that you might want to start looking out for and tuning in to (these range from gentle to ravenous) [2]:

  • Mild gurgling / gnawing in the stomach

  • Growling stomach noises

  • Light-headedness

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Uncomfortable stomach pain

  • Irritability

  • Feeling faint

  • Headache

Next, you need to start responding to hunger when you feel it. When you first feel the gentle rumbling in your tummy, why not eat something rather than pushing to see how long you can survive without consuming a snack or meal? Remember, your hunger cues may fluctuate throughout the day AND day-to-day. It’s very normal to experience days where you aren’t particularly hungry and may go for hours without thinking about food much, and others where you are ravenous and require far more meals/snacks. Some of the things that may influence your hunger levels can include physical activity level (both on a day and in the days before), lack of sleep, where you are in your menstrual cycle (I’m hoping to cover this in a blogpost sometime), and the composition/types of foods you’ve eaten in the day already. Trust that your body knows what it needs, and that over time things will balance out.

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Hunger-Fullness Scale (adapted from the Intuitive Eating Workbook)

Hunger-Fullness Scale (adapted from the Intuitive Eating Workbook)

USING THE HUNGER-FULLNESS SCALE

The Hunger-Fullness scale is a useful tool that you can use as you’re getting back in touch with the more subtle hunger cues. When you sit down to eat a meal or a snack, use the Hunger-Fullness scale to the right and ask yourself “Where am I on the Hunger-Fullness scale right now?”. Ideally you want to be just below a 4 at this point, and want to eat something before you reach a 0-2 on the scale. Halfway through your meal, pause for a few seconds and check in with yourself, asking the same question. The goal is to learn to eat until you’re feeling comfortably satisfied (6-7 on the scale). It’s important to remember that you are allowed to eat beyond the point of comfortable fullness and don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed about it. This is just a tool to help you learn how to tune into your hunger again.

There are some really great exercises that can help you better understand and tune into your hunger in Laura Thomas’ book ‘Just Eat It’, the Intuitive Eating Workbook, and the blogposts referenced at the end of this post. Do yourself a favour and get your hands on either of these books, and read through the blogposts for some practical ways in which you can work through this principle. It may take some time, but slowly but surely it will become far easier to recognise your hunger, honour it, and allow your body to once again trust that it will receive nourishment when it needs it.

Emotional or physical hunger?

It can often be difficult to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger. I will cover this more in a post on Principle 7 of IE (Honour Your Feelings Without Using Food), but in the meantime it’s important to know that emotional eating/hunger is not inherently bad or wrong - it’s when it’s your only coping mechanism that there may be a problem. Ok so how can you distinguish between physical and emotional hunger? Laura Thomas summarises this quite nicely in her book (just note that there is a lot more nuance to this, which I will cover in a future blogpost) [1]:

Physical Hunger

  • Builds up gradually (time will have passed since you last ate)

  • Can leave you feeling low in energy

  • Will be satisfied when you eat something

  • Can leave you feeling irritable (also relieved by eating something)

Emotional hunger

  • No physical hunger cues (see the list earlier in this post)

  • Can result in very specific cravings

  • Will not be completely satisfied by food

  • Usually occurs very shortly after eating a meal/snack