• Hannah Peterman, Undergraduate Dietetic Intern

Practice Intuitive Eating: Honor Your Hunger

Food + Body = War. This is the bare-bones message that inundates our culture. We're told messages like, "Feel hungry? Try drinking water or diet beverages to take the edge off your hunger pangs." or, "Craving carbohydrates? Here's a carbohydrate-substitute that will trick your body into thinking it's getting what it wants."

From a young age, we've learned that our body is the enemy and that food is its dangerous co-conspirator. We've believed that we must override, ignore, and deceive our appetites to avoid being overpowered by our biology. There's only one problem: our bodies aren't buying it.

In an acclaimed nutrition study that occurred during World War, II, 32 healthy men were instructed to follow a 1570 calorie/day diet, a requirement that mirrors what numerous diets today require of their adherents. Not surprisingly, these men experienced a 40% decrease in metabolism, obsessive thoughts about food, loss of "willpower," and significant (8000-1000 calorie) binges during the refeeding period. One of the participants even stole candy! Put simply, deprivation caused these otherwise healthy men to feel out-of-control around food. Their bodies were demanding fuel.

When presented with food after a period of deprivation, your body, too, will behave differently than if you had eaten when you were hungry. Salivation and digestive hormones are released in greater quantities after deprivation because your body is begging for food. A neuroreceptor called Neuropeptide Y is more active during periods of food restriction, and this receptor stimulates carbohydrate cravings! Thus, after restriction, your body is screaming for foods that are rich in carbohydrates--oftentimes the ones you would usually deem to be "too unhealthy."

This fact, combined with the all-or-nothing mindset that lurks in the shadows of diet culture, is a sure-fire way to set yourself up for weight fluctuation, binges, chaotic eating, and food anxiety. How can this pain be avoided? By listening to your body's hunger cues! If your body receives the energy it needs on a regular basis, your chronic cravings and food obsession will likely dissipate.


Where to start? For many people, listening to their body is something they have avoided for years! Much like riding a bike, honoring your hunger is a skill set that requires practice and patience. Once learned, it will feel like it's second nature. Here are a few ways you can get started!

1. Take a moment and jot down a time when you felt hungry. This may seem elementary, but countless people aren't aware that they are hungry until they are ravenous. Ask yourself what hunger feels like. Are you lightheaded or faint? Is it hard to concentrate? Is your stomach growling?

2. Pause to check in occasionally. Hunger increases over time, and your goal should be to aim for eating somewhere between the initial hunger signs and ravenous hunger. Using a hunger scale like the one below for a few days can help you learn to recognize your hunger cues. To start, try checking in every hour or two for a few days to see how your hunger/fullness levels fluctuate throughout the day. Ideally, you should try to eat when you are around a level 3. Allowing hunger to go much longer than this can lead to overeating later on. If you're at a 5 or above, you're not experiencing physical hunger. Don't wait until you're at a 1 before you stop what you're doing and seek out food!

In this process, it is important not to turn intuitive eating into the "hunger/fullness diet". Be aware that there are times when hunger cues are not accurate and avoiding eating just because you don't feel hungry could lead to undereating. Some examples of times when you may not be feeling accurate hunger cues include during times of stress or anxiety, when you're really busy, if you're ill, or after physical activity.

If you haven't already, click below to subscribe to our Practice Intuitive Eating tip series for our tips on addressing these times when your hunger cues are less than accurate. You'll receive an email for this and each of the other principles of intuitive eating that contains even more practical tips for becoming an intuitive eater.

#intuitiveeating #bingeeating #mindfulness

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