Do you associate hunger with negative feelings? Are you always trying to eat less, pushing off your hunger only to lose control once you’ve finally eaten?
If you have a complicated relationship with food, honoring your hunger can feel confusing, and sometimes you’re not even sure what hunger feels like or how to approach it.
Diet culture is largely to blame for the negative connotation that hunger receives. It’s common to feel guilty and self-conscious for feeling hungry. We’re told to drink water or chew gum as a distraction, but we’re rarely told to honor our hunger by EATING.
The Intuitive Eating book teaches us perfectly communicates that remaining biologically fed with sufficient energy and carbohydrates is important!
Without a sustained mind and body, your primal drive will kick in and excessive hunger will lead to overeating. When your body’s priority is to respond to intense hunger, moderate and conscious eating become irrelevant.
Minnesota Starvation Experiment and the Effects of Food Deprivation
Dieting may not look harmful, but it does result in exhibiting symptoms of starvation. Our basic need for food is so essential that if we’re not fulfilling it with enough energy, then biological and psychological mechanisms kick in to compensate.
The Minnesota Starvation Experiment is a prominent study from the WWII era that sought to learn how to best refeed people after a famine. The study and its findings also demonstrated the power of food deprivation and how starvation affects the body and mind.
During the first three months of the study 32 healthy men ate as they pleased, then, for the following six months the men were placed into a state of semi-starvation and their calories were cut in half.
The results of how the men reacted to the semi-starvation period notably mirrored the symptoms of chronic dieting:
Metabolic rate significantly decreased
Obsession and preoccupation with food
Eating style and behavior changes where the men fluctuated between gorging food or taking a long time to eat meals
Some men failed to stick to their restricted calorie diets and lost willpower, reporting episodes of bulimia and binge eating
Others exercised more to receive more food rations
The men experienced apathy, irritability, moodiness, and depression
During the refeeding and rehabilitation period, the men were allowed to eat at their own will, but their hunger was more intense and insatiable than before. The men found it difficult to stop eating and binged frequently.
The men weren’t driven by today’s pressures to be thin and fit, and although this was an experiment to address WWII famines, the men’s low-calorie diets matched today’s modern weight loss diets.
Before the study, the men never experienced symptoms of food deprivation, but their restricted food intake triggered the same biological survival mechanisms that dieters experience today!
When you’ve been experiencing food deprivation through dieting your body kicks your instinctual eating drive into an entirely new gear.
Your salivation increases even when no food is present and you have an increase in digestive hormones before and after eating.
Your brain revs up more of the chemical Neuropeptide Y, triggering your desire to seek more carbohydrates (your body wants quick energy!).
Protein is taken away from its primary role in building and maintaining muscle and gets broken down into energy.
It’s completely normal for you to overeat or binge after you’ve been restricting your food - just like the men in the experiment. Your body does NOT know the difference between a famine and a diet!
Honor Your Hunger - Intuitive Eating Principle 2
The first step to rediscover your ability to be an intuitive eater, regain body trust, and break the cycle of restriction followed by overeating and bingeing is to honor your biological hunger.
Your body needs to feel SURE that it’ll consistently have access to food and that there’s no famine (diet) coming in the future. If your body feels like food is scarce, because it’s used to dieting, it’ll always be on guard.
Once your mind and body truly believe that food will always be available the next time you’re hungry, the intensity behind eating will diminish and it’s easier for you to stop eating when you’ve had enough food.
This is a process of learning to trust your body, and allowing your body to trust you again.
What Does Hunger Feel Like?
Hunger is an important signal telling us that we need energy from food, but many dieters second guess their biological cues because they’re used to strict diet rules.
If you consistently deny your hunger signals, your hunger signals begin to fade and it gets harder to identify them. This can turn into only hearing your hunger signals once they’re at extreme levels and you’re ravenous.
You CAN get your hunger signals back even if you feel like you can’t identify them at the moment. The key is to start listening for them so that you can learn to respond!
Hunger can feel different for each person and with practice you’ll pick up on the signals that your own body gives you.
Signs of Hunger
These signs are nuances of hunger and don’t all have to happen at once. Sometimes they occur in combination with each other, or sometimes not at all. Again, it depends on what hunger signals look like for your body.
Mild gurgling or gnawing in the stomach
Uncomfortable stomach pain
Thinking about food more
A desire to eat
A feeling of emptiness
Loss of energy, lethargic
To get back in touch with your hunger cues it’s helpful to monitor your hunger levels before, after, and in between meals and snacks.
The Hunger Discovery Scale, also known as the Hunger Fullness Scale, is a widely recognized tool that’s used when relearning how to eat intuitively. Its rating system is subjective and there’s no right or wrong way to use it; its purpose is for you to gain awareness of your own hunger cues.
A common misconception with this principle of intuitive eating is that people take it as a diet mantra and believe they’re only allowed to eat if they’re physically hungry. Not true! There are other reasons to eat besides hunger.
If food sounds good or the occasion calls for it, like enjoying dessert even if you’re full from dinner, that’s normal! Maybe you have to eat lunch early when you’re not hungry yet, but you know you won’t have time to eat later, that’s normal too!
Honoring your hunger is about listening to your body, but it’s also about being flexible and living your life without rigidity getting in the way!
If honoring your hunger sounds confusing and stressful, that’s OK, it takes time to relearn and get acquainted with how to listen and respond to your body’s signals. Do you need guidance in how to get started with honoring your hunger? Let’s get in touch!