• Alice Clarke

Intuitive Eating - Recognising your Hunger

Our bodies send us fundamental signals all day regarding thirst, movement and sleep among others. Hunger is another ingrained force that is essential to our survival. Even as a newborn baby, a cry for food indicates how primitive our hunger signals are to fuel our bodies. Babies and young children cry for food when they’re hungry and turn away when they’re full – they don’t think about portions, calories or macros. However, many of us have trained ourselves to ignore these hunger signals for years, to the point that we may have even forgotten what hunger feels like.

Diet Culture is forever selling us the idea that suppressing or ignoring these primal signals can somehow make us into better individuals. Some common ‘advice’ that you might have seen includes:

“Drink water before every meal so you fill up faster and don’t eat as much”

“Consuming green tea throughout the day can help suppress your appetite and aid weight loss”

“Brush your teeth after you’ve eaten dinner to stop you snacking in the evening”

The concept of denying these signals and insufficiently fuelling your body with adequate energy can eventually trigger a drive to overeat. This response is not related to your willpower but a primal survival response to fuel your body adequately, triggered by a hormone release. It is the denial of these signals that initiates the start of a poor relationship with food. If your body cannot trust you to feed it, it begins to make metabolic changes that lead your body to store food in the long-term rather than use it for fuel.

However, now is your opportunity to get back in touch with your hunger signals again. If you came from my post last week, you have hopefully taken the first step to ditching diet culture and embarking on a road to a positive relationship with food. The initial thing to think about is what hunger actually feels like to you. This will be different for everyone and there is no right or wrong way to feel hungry, but some common feelings hunger can elicit are:

- Stomach rumbling

- Irritability

- Fatigue

- Weakness

- Inability to concentrate

- Nausea

- A pre-occupation with food

If you’re still not sure what hunger feels like to you, then take some time to acknowledge the feelings that occur after a period of time without eating. It is only then that you can begin to embrace and honour those feelings and begin to repair your relationship with food.

Another aspect of honouring your hunger involves understanding when you’re full. Embracing both your hunger signals and fullness signals introduces the concept of your hunger scale. This scale is completely personalised to you, with 1 being your most hungry and 10 being your most full. In an ideal world, it is best to remain between your 3 and 7. By enjoying a meal when you’re at about a 3-4 you will be eating when you are hungry, but not too hungry that you are at risk of over-eating. By stopping at about a 6-7 you are tuning into how full you are to prevent feelings of discomfort. However, the fundamental concept of this is that there are no rules and that if you want to eat then you can, independent of where you are on your hunger scale. But having the ability to tune into your body and its signals is extremely important.

Finally, in order to be fully satisfied when eating we have to accept that there are different types of hunger: physical and emotional. It is all well and good fuelling your body for its physical requirements, but if you don’t accommodate some of your emotional needs then you will never feel fully satisfied. A reason that many diets fail is because they do not account for our emotional hunger requirements. You may be embracing your hunger cues, eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full, but if you are ignoring your emotional hunger because those foods don’t ‘fit’, then there is still some work to be done. Next week we will be discussing food guilt in an attempt to combat these feelings and satisfy all hunger.

Ultimately, honouring your hunger involves listening to your own personal cues. Not the opinions of your family and friends, not what the meal plan from your gym states and not what the clock and society dictate. Your hunger cues will be unique to you and if you have spent months or years attempting to suppress them it will take time for them to resurface: have faith, they will return.

Note: Although this post can be read as stand-alone, if you are looking to learn more about improving your relationship with your body and food make sure to check out the other posts in this series.

*Please note that if you are following a plan from a registered dietician, nutritionist or other healthcare professional, particularly designed to help you re-establish your hunger and fullness cues (potentially in light of an eating disorder) then this is important, and this post is less likely to apply to you.