Honoring hunger means eating when your body tells you it needs food. Photo of a rustic pottery bowl of noodles, greens, lemon slices and cooked Asian mushrooms with a fried egg on top, set against a multi-hued blue background.

It’s something I hear often from clients: “My spouse/partner/sibling/friend says, ‘How can you possibly be hungry already? I’m still full from breakfast/lunch.’ and it really bothers/annoys/irritates me!”

I hear you, sister (or brother)! I get the same thing from my beloved spouse, and he should KNOW better! You might call these people the anti-food pushers.

Questions like “How can you be hungry?” and their cousins, “Why are you getting upset about this?” and “Why are you tired?” (assuming they are voiced with disbelief or reproach, rather than gentle curiosity) are problematic for few reasons.

Part of honoring hunger means accepting that your food needs are different than anyone else's. Photo of a young man dressed in black and a young woman with long wavy brown hair dressed in a dark red dress, holding hands and standing with their backs to the camera, in front of woods with golden yellow foliage.
You are a unique human

One, given the same inputs, we don’t all have the same outputs. This is true when comparing yourself to someone else, and even when comparing yourself to yourself on different days. One of the principles of intuitive eating is “honor your hunger,” and this includes accepting that you don’t control how long after a meal or snack hunger returns. True hunger, however you experience it (in other words, some people experience sensations in the stomach, while others do not), is a sign that you need to plan to refuel your body soon. It’s NOT a sign that:

  • You should get mad at yourself for being hungry, for not “cooperating.”
  • You should ignore your hunger and wait until an “appropriate” meal or snack time.
  • You should conclude that something is wrong with you, that your body is “broken.”

Let’s say you share the same meal with someone else. That particular combination of foods may be more satisfying to your companion than to you, which means your hunger will likely return sooner. For example, I love making steel cut oatmeal—it’s comforting, nutritious and tasty—but I know that I will get hungry sooner on mornings I have oatmeal (even with the addition of nuts or some peanut butter) than I will on mornings I have a breakfast based on Greek yogurt or eggs, which include more protein. And that’s OK. Some people are fully satisfied by smoothie breakfasts, others are not. Honoring hunger means knowing and trusting what your body is telling you, and making food adjustments as needed.

Similarly, you might have an emotional response to situations that don’t elicit the same response in someone else. You might also become fatigued by a certain level of physical or mental activity, whereas your questioner simply does not.

Part of honoring hunger means accepting that your food needs may vary from day to day. Profile photo of a young woman with long brown hair, against a blurred green background.
You aren’t the same every day

Here’s another example: Let’s say that your usual go-to lunch is a big salad with grilled chicken. It always seems to satisfy you until mid-to-late afternoon, when you need a snack to carry you through to dinner. But suddenly one day, you find that it only holds you for two hours instead of three-to-four hours. How can this be?

There’s no absolute answer to this, but it’s possible that your energy (food) needs are higher that day for reasons that aren’t clear to you. (I have a theory that if our immune system is working furiously behind the scenes to prevent a full-on infection after we’ve been exposed to a cold or flu virus, then our energy needs are higher, but I’ve not dug in to see if there’s any research about that.) It could also be that you ate more lightly earlier that day, or even the previous day, and your body is prompting you to eat more to meet its needs.

Similarly, you might have some days where your emotions feel very close to the surface, and others where you are able to be thoughtfully responsive instead of sharply reactive. You might have days where you feel tired for no rhyme or reason. When this happens to me, I mentally tick through the boxes:

  • Did I get enough sleep?
  • Did I exercise more, or more strenuously, than usual?
  • Was the day’s work more mentally taxing?
  • Am I worried or frustrated about something (as this can be fatiguing)?

Sometimes, an answer offers a plausible explanation. Other times, I come up empty. Which returns me to my theory about the immune system being busier on some days!

When you're working on honoring your hunger, and someone questions your hunger, it's easy to feel like your buttons are getting pushed. Photo of a collection of buttons, with each button sitting on top of a small, round plastic container.
What happens when your buttons get pushed

If you’re super secure in the fact that your needs for food and other inputs aren’t the same every single day, and trust your body to let you know what we need, then comments like “How can you be hungry already?” may just be minor annoyances. But if you are new to the process of intuitive eating and learning to trust your body—as many people are if they have a history of disordered eating, which includes chronic dieting—and honoring your hunger is still challenging, then these questions can be very triggering.

What do I mean by triggering? I mean that these types of questions may make you doubt your ability to trust yourself. They may bring up fears that something is wrong with you, either internally or possibly externally, in terms of behaving in a socially acceptable way. No one likes to feel judged!

Your response to these triggers can actually be damaging and work against your ability to practice good self-care. You might revert to denying your body’s needs in order to avoid judgment. You might mentally beat yourself up, which is never a path to better health and self-care. You might lash out at the questioner, which doesn’t foster meaningful connection (and might cause you to beat yourself up because you feel guilty for lashing out).

Part of honoring hunger means asserting your needs with others, if needed. Photo of a young woman in a pink hoodie and a young man in a gray long-sleeved shirt and a light blue backpack, leaning against an ornate concrete railing with some ornate columns and fountains in the distance.
Responding, not reacting

So how can you assert your right to interpret your own body’s needs and act accordingly? In other words, how can you make clear that YOU alone are the boss of you?

As with responding to food pushers (which I discussed in a recent Seattle Times column), sometimes the simplest response is the best response. When asked, “How can you be hungry already/why are you tired/why are you upset?” shrug and respond, “I don’t know. I just am.” Repeat as often as needed. (If you’re feeling cheeky, you could raise and eyebrow and turn the tables with, “Why are my hunger levels of such interest to you?”)

If you think you have identified an underlying reason, and feel inclined to share that reason, you can still keep it simple. “I don’t think lunch had enough protein/fiber/volume to hold me for very long,” “I didn’t sleep very well last night/I’ve been super busy today and I think my brain is broken/I’m still recovering from that hike yesterday.” Keep in mind, however, that your feelings are real whether or not someone else understands them.

Part of honoring hunger is being curious when you're hungrier than usual. Photo of a young woman with brown hair and a red blouse, peering through a magnifying glass.
The power of curiosity

The bottom line is that your feelings are your feelings, whether that means feeling hungry, feeling tired or feeling emotional. You don’t have to explain your internal physical or emotional responses to anyone. If YOU suspect that there’s something amiss with any of these feelings, then approaching it with curiosity, not judgment, is a good place to start. Do you need to tweak your meals so they are more satisfying? Do you need to improve your sleep habits, take more breaks, or do shorter or less intense workouts? Are your emotional responses trying to tell you something about an underlying issues that needs to be addressed? These questions can help you practice better self-care, and that’s always a good thing!

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

Print This Post Print This Post