Part of becoming an intuitive eater involves developing a sense of flexibility and nuance around food. While the idea of honoring your hunger can be liberating, it can also present a great challenge to those still wrestling with the rigid rules of diet culture.
The 10 principles of intuitive eating offer a guide and framework for healing your relationship with food and body image. While the steps are numbered, they don’t need to be followed in order. Working on the second principle, honoring your hunger, can make the other principles, like making peace with food more accessible.
How Dieting Affects Our Hunger
Dieting and food restriction cause our body to believe that it is in a condition of food scarcity. Even though we may have easy and regular access to food, (unless you are food insecure which is a very real and unjust issue) dieting can lead our bodies to think that it is starving given the caloric deficit that many diets encourage. Our bodies are biologically wired to operate in this way. Our ancestors had to hunt and gather food and would have periods of feast and famine. Their bodies had to be efficient at storing energy (aka: calories) so they could survive. An insufficient amount of calories naturally signals to our body that food is scarce.
When food is restricted (either physically or mentally), it is common to feel more preoccupied with food. Lack of food causes your body to trigger a number of mechanisms that put it in primal hunger mode signaling to your brain that food is scarce. When you suddenly have access to food again, your body intuitively overeats as a way to protect and nourish itself. There is nothing wrong with that! It’s just your body trying to protect you. Thanks, body!
Ignoring hunger can have a number of detrimental effects on our body. As mentioned above, it can have the immediate effect of pushing our bodies towards overeating to compensate for the restriction of food caused by dieting. Overtime, it can also damage our interoceptive awareness, making our hunger cues more difficult to notice. This is yet another reason why dieting can be so harmful. It forces us to follow arbitrary rules, like when and what to eat, rather than listen to the natural cues provided by our bodies. It becomes very difficult to truly honor your hunger.
How to Honor Your Hunger
Here are a few ways you can work on honoring your hunger:
- Ditch the diet. Most diets encourage you to restrict food or tell you when to eat, which forces you to ignore your internal cues.
- Feed your body regularly throughout the day. This can help prevent primal hunger from being triggered and builds a foundation of body trust.
- Have a combination of carbs, fat, and protein that will help make your meals or snacks filling and satisfying.
- Eat enough carbs. Carbohydrates, which break down into glucose, are particularly important because they are our bodies preferred source of energy. Our brain, for example, relies on glucose exclusively – an important fact that diet culture forgets since it encourages us to limit or cut them out completely. If we don’t eat enough carbs, our bodies breakdown and transform our muscles (protein) for energy. This isn’t an efficient system and you can’t just eat more protein to prevent that from happening.
- Use the hunger/fullness scale as a guide to better understand how your body is communicating when it’s hungry or full. This tool can be helpful as you work on tuning into your body to see what signals it sends when it feels hungry vs. extremely hungry.
Important Note: This scale isn’t meant to be followed “perfectly” and it may not be appropriate for someone who is in recovery from an eating disorder or chronic dieting.
If all of this seems overwhelming, know that you don’t have to do this alone! Working with an intuitive eating aligned dietitian can be very helpful.
Different Types of Hunger
One caveat: while it is important to honor your hunger, this doesn’t mean that you should only eat when you’re physically hungry. Some people can get really caught up on the idea and turn this part of intuitive eating into the hunger-fullness diet. This is rigid and doesn’t allow for the different types of hunger: taste, practical, and emotional.
- Taste hunger describes the desire to eat food for the pleasure it brings even though you’re not physically hungry. It involves enjoying food as a source of joy, like when you attend a special occasion or simply getting dessert after dinner because it just sounds delicious!
- Practical hunger is about logistics and working with your schedule. For example, you may have a meeting at 12:30 PM, but that’s usually around the time you get hungry. You know you won’t be able to eat until after, but that might cause you to feel uncomfortably hungry. So you eat before the meeting even though you weren’t physically hungry.
- Emotional hunger involves eating to soothe difficult and complex feelings. Food is comforting – we all have certain foods that we turn to when we are feeling emotional and that’s fine. Coping with our emotions with kindness (principle 7 of intuitive eating) encourages you have multiple tools in addition to food to help alleviate intense emotions.
For some people, this can be one of the challenging areas of intuitive eating because it’s asking you to actively unlearn diet culture. Honoring your hunger and adequately nourishing our bodies is a vital step to making peace with all foods.