decoding hunger


Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. Easy peasy, right? Wrong. Too often, people try to turn honoring hunger cues into another diet. No sir. None of that here!

It’s true that part of being a normal eater is tuning into hunger + fullness cues to help guide our food choices, but it’s not always so black + white. In fact, there’s a whole lot of nutrition that isn’t black + white, but rather, totally grey. Let’s start with what hunger entails.

Hunger involves a physiological communication between our gastrointestinal system + our brain. Among many other functions, the vagus nerves also help to form this physical connection to our brain. When we are getting low on fuel, including a decrease in blood sugar + less volume in our stomachs, multiple hormones come into play to encourage us to seek out food. I’ll just touch on two major ones you might often hear mentioned the most.

Ghrelin

Also referred to as “the hunger hormone,” ghrelin is released to increase appetite + signal to us that it’s time to eat. It also helps initiate gastric secretions + motility to prepare for the digestion + absorption processes.

Leptin

This hormone works in conjunction/opposition with ghrelin to help signal fullness or satiety. So, leptin is released to let us know that we are reaching a level of fullness that should meet our current energy needs.

 

Emotions

We can’t ignore that food + emotions have such a strong tie to each other. Emotional eating is part of being a normal eater because let’s face it, we’re not robots! Emotional hunger often comes on quickly and can usually be linked to a current stressor or feelings going on in your life. We typically feel emotional hunger for specific foods, which we often refer to as cravings.

Coming home from a long, stressful day and enjoying some extra ice cream after dinner does have its place in normal eating. The issue with emotional eating comes if food becomes your main coping mechanism. Seeking therapy + guidance to help identify emotions is an imperative part of healing our relationships with food. Developing and maintaining self-care practices is part of that process as well!

What does hunger feel like?

This depends a lot on your body + your history. People may assume hunger is just a grumbling tummy. But there’s many more ways our body communicates hunger with us. We may begin to feel fatigued or drowsy. I’ve learned that I even find myself yawning! Headaches, shakiness, lack of focus, lightheadedness, and feeling cranky [looking at you “hanger”] are a few others, too!

If you’re recovering from disordered eating or have been a chronic dieter, you may not have reliable hunger + fullness cues or be feeling them much at all. That’s okay. It is temporary. With consistent eating patterns, weight restoration, &/or medical stabilization, they will return!

Hunger + Fullness Scale

One tool that is often used to help us tune back into hunger + fullness is this trusty scale. Its purpose is to prompt us to pay extra attention to how our body physically feels before + after eating. It can also lead us to discover some more subtle signs of hunger that we didn’t pick up on before! Using the scale to check in, plus having regular meals/snacks throughout the day, can help put us on the right track to having more consistent hunger cues.

hunger fullness scale

Somewhere between a 3-4, or your first signs of hunger, would indicate that it’s time to find some food! Then, while you’re eating, pause to think about where you are on the scale now. Is it a 5? Maybe keep eating so your meal will last you longer than an hour or two. The aim is to finish your meal around 6-7, but there’s most definitely going to be times when you stop at an 8 or 9, too! That’s okay! With Thanksgiving coming up, it’s very common that we will eat to a 9 while enjoying the delish holiday traditions + connecting with family and friends.

It’s a bit of a trial + error game to learn your own signals. At first, you may stop eating at what you thought was a 6 only to realize you were back to a 4 within 30 minutes. You can take that information to learn for next time and add some more satiating options. Try to practice thinking about where you are on the scale until tuning into these cues becomes a bit more clear + almost second nature.

Let’s chat.

Do you think it’s difficult to know when you’re hungry or full?

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