Updated: Mar 26, 2022
Written by: Natalie Faella, MS, RDN, LDN | March 22, 2022
One of the 10 principles of intuitive eating (IE) is honoring your hunger. We’ve covered a few aspects of IE so far: what IE is, why satisfaction with eating is important, how joyful movement vs. exercise makes a difference, and how to reject diet mentality and quiet that inner food police voice in our heads.
Today we’re going to focus on hunger. You might think: “that’s easy, stomach growls = time to eat.” But it’s not always so simple. How many times have you felt hungry but put it off to finish a task? Or put if off because dinnertime, or the next time your diet said it was OK to eat, was X hours away? Or because you “shouldn’t” be hungry yet because you just ate?
What complicates things more, is we often view hunger, missing meals, and eating very little as a badge of honor. We say things like "Ugh, I'm so hungry I haven't eaten all day" before eating dinner as if we have to prove to others and ourselves that we deserve this dinner. This can ultimately make the person you're eating with question what this means for them — "should I eat less than my friend because I did eat today?" Or we let others know we "didn't have time to eat today" translation: I'm super busy, which is good because society tells us we should be super busy and put our needs last.
Then there is the issue: what if you never feel hungry often? What if you don’t experience that stomach gurgling? Or feel like you forget to eat?
I’ll get to these questions but first, I think it will be helpful to learn a little more about our hunger cues.
Biology Drives Us to Eat
Our bodies are truly incredible. They can sense when we’re in the need of energy (calories), and send off signals in the body that nudge us to eat. For instance, ghrelin (also called our hunger hormone), is a hormone that is released to increase our sense of hunger. The body will continue to release ghrelin until we eat, meaning levels will continue to rise making us feel more and more hungry. The longer we put off eating (I’m looking at you, intermittent fasting!) or deprive ourselves of enough foods (all diets in general), the more ghrelin we produce.
Eating enough of a satisfying meal is what will switch ghrelin off, signaling that we are full. But what’s interesting is this doesn’t seem to be the case for chronic dieters. Ghrelin levels can actually remain high after a meal, preventing them from feeling full or satisfied and encouraging them to continue eating. This faulty ghrelin switch is a result of having been deprived of food and can last for up to a year after dieting or weight loss.
What we often chalk up to “willpower” i.e., someone not eating or not eating much in the day, is actually someone who is ignoring their biological cue to eat, which can (biologically) lead to overeating down the line.
What we often chalk up to "willpower" is actually someone who is ignoring their biological cue to eat, which can (biologically) lead to overeating down the line.
Ghrelin also seems to peak around 7PM, especially for those who haven’t eaten enough during the day. This likely contributes to that after work “witching hour” where you just want to eat everything in sight. (Stress and skipping meals or having an unsatisfying “light” lunch during the day will contribute to this as well).
And what do we crave at that time, or really, most of the time? Carbs. Carbs in all forms — bread, chips, pretzels, cookies, candy/sweets… This is definitely in part because of the messaging we get to avoid them, and can be compounded when we are following a low carb diet (forbidden foods = more alluring), but there is a biological reason, too. Ghrelin stimulates a chemical messenger called neuropeptide-y, which causes a craving for carbohydrates.
Why? Because this delicious little macronutrient quickly and effectively increases our blood sugar levels, which we are desperately in need of when we haven’t eaten or eaten enough all day and are running on E. Some other signs of low blood sugar include: irritability, fatigue, low motivation, lethargy, and faintness. Makes perfect sense why the couch, Netflix, and bowl chips or cookies sounds so appealing after work.
We’re meant to meet our body's needs — period. This is in part why diets and diet mentality, i.e., “I’m just going to eat a little bit now so I can eat more out at dinner later…” don’t work. Especially long-term. Our bodies will literally shoot off signals to try to get us to stop.
But what if I never feel hungry?
A number of things suppress our hunger like stress, distractions, or a learned response to ignore it. Diet culture teaches us “tricks” to curb our appetite like drinking water instead of eating, or loading up on coffee, or chain smoking cigarettes. We’ve been taught to fear our hunger or try to avoid it, which we now know will ultimately make us eat more at some point. And if we’ve been ignoring that cue, it may not be as clear to us as a gurgling stomach — it can be harder to detect.
It’s also important to note that when someone has been in an extreme calorie deficit, their body may stop signaling hunger (along with ceasing other things, like a monthly period), in attempt to conserve energy.
Here are some less obvious signs of hunger:
Stomach aches, pain, or nausea
Shaky hands or body shakes
Inability to focus
Irritability (“hangry”) or lack of patience
Low energy, fatigue, lethargy
Low motivation, lack of enthusiasm
Moodiness or “blah” feeling
To tune back into your hunger, it helps start eating consistently throughout the day. A great place to start is breakfast: start eating breakfast around the same time each day. Eventually you’ll notice you’re hungry and ready for it.
To tune back into your hunger, it helps to start eating consistently throughout the day.
This can feel scary. There can be a sense of accomplishment or peace with not feeling hunger (i.e., “if I’m not hungry, I won’t eat and I will lose/won’t gain weight”). But consistently not eating enough can ultimately lead to weight gain and cause more metabolic harm than good. (Refresher on those side effects here).
Is it OK to eat when not hungry?
Short answer — yes! This is especially important for those who feel like they don’t experience hunger. Generally speaking, 3 meals and 1-4 snacks per day are needed to meet energy needs (depending on how long you are awake and several metabolic factors). Just because you don’t feel it, doesn’t mean your body doesn’t still need energy and nutrients. There are exceptions, of course. For example, if you are feeling sick and physically cannot get enough food down, you have to honor that, too. What you will also have to honor is the increased hunger you’ll likely feel over the next few days after you’ve recovered. That’s the body making up for lost time and nutrition (it really is so brilliant!).
It can be a slippery slope down into the dark valley of yo-yo dieting and weight cycling if we only eat when we’re hungry. This would make us miss out on things like: not tasting one of the delicious cookies that you or your friend just baked, or not having dessert after a meal, or not enjoying a bowl of popcorn while watching a moving. We’re often satisfied from dinner when it comes time for dessert or a movie on the couch, but unless we are uncomfortably full, there is no reason to deny ourselves of these enjoyable things. And as you know, denying ourselves of the foods we enjoy can lead to overindulging later.
It can be a slippery slope down into the dark valley of yo-yo dieting and weight cycling if we only eat when we're hungry.
Plus, say if we were to come home to some freshly baked cookies but told ourselves we’d wait to try one when we were hungry, what do you think would happen? Would we try one or at least six to tame our growling stomach? (Remember how our cravings for carbs/sweets increases as we let hunger go on?).
Don’t Fear Your Hunger
Bottomline, ignoring our hunger does more harm than good. It biologically results in more reminders to eat and carb cravings. It also counteracts the result we’re often trying to achieve by ignoring it — whether it’s weight loss, curbing cravings, avoiding certain foods or food altogether. Honoring our hunger helps us learn to trust our bodies, which in turn helps us reject diet mentality, while making intuitive eating accessible again.
Stay tuned for about intuitive eating and my anti-diet approach to nutrition, health, and wellness by subscribing here!
1. Just Eat It