This is the second post in a 10-part series looking at the principles of Intuitive Eating. Last week’s post was on Principle 1: Reject the Diet Mentality.

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “I can’t possibly be hungry…I just ate,” “I’m hungry all the time…this diet must be working,” or even, “I have no idea how to tell when I’m actually hungry.” So if you find it hard to honor your hunger, you’re not alone!

I blame diet culture — and the resulting diet mentality — for the first two, as we become programmed to believe that we can’t trust our bodies when they tell us, “Hey, I need some fuel!” Over time, this can lead to confusion about which sensations mean we’re hungry. It can even lead to “hunger silence.”

But let’s start out with a truth bomb: A dieting body is a starving body

Your body has a primal need for energy in the form of calories, and if deprived it of these calories it will compensate with powerful biological and psychological mechanisms. Specifically, your body has a vast network of hormones and neurotransmitters that are designed to get you to eat when your body is running low on immediately accessible fuel.

While there is a substantial amount of research examining how restricting food increases hunger, slows metabolism and has other undesirable effects on physical and mental health, one of the first studies to examine this took place at the end of World War II.

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment in 1944-1945 taught us a lot about what happens when we don’t honor our hunger by eating enough to meet our body’s needs. The study, which enrolled conscientious objectors during World War II, was designed to help researchers understand how to safely “refeed” individuals affected by famine during the war. (Basically, when the body is starving, refeeding too quickly can lead to fatal imbalances in our electrolytes. This is a big issue when treating people with anorexia nervosa.)

Physically and mentally healthy young adult male volunteers were put on a semi-starvation diet (about 1,560 calories per day, half of the men’s usual food intake) for six months to lose about 25 percent of their starting body weight. Then came a 12-week phase when different methods of nutritional rehabilitation (refeeding) were tested in a controlled way. Finally, there was an eight-week phase when the men were allowed to eat whatever they wanted, but their food intake was being recorded and the men were being monitored.

Not only did the 36 men experience profound physical changes, such as lack of energy and extreme hunger, but they also experienced psychological changes such as mood changes and lack of interest in formerly pleasurable hobbies and activities. They also developed intense preoccupation with food during the semi-starvation phase, then started to exhibit binge-eating behaviors as more food was made available. Some of the men would vomit following binges. Not surprisingly, many people who undertake intentional weight loss diets experience these phenomena themselves.

Hunger is not lack of willpower

True hunger is a biological drive — not something to virtuously overcome through willpower — because our bodies need energy, and energy comes from food. When our brains and our cells are running low on energy, levels of ghrelin, one of the main “hunger hormones,” will keep increasing as our brains try to force us to eat. Our bodies also secrete more saliva and digestive enzymes, because surely we’re going to eat soon…right?

Also, because our brains primarily use glucose (blood sugar) from carbohydrates for fuel, our levels of neuropeptide-Y, commonly known as the “carb-craving chemical” rise as we go longer and longer without fuel. Levels of neuropeptide-Y are highest in the morning after an overnight fast, but levels can increase through the day if you skip breakfast.

Here’s another thing to keep in mind if you tend to restrict carbohydrates: even on a “high-protein” diet (common in many diet plans), when you restrict carbs, your body will breakdown your muscles before it burns fat because it’s far easier to convert protein into glucose than it is to convert fat into glucose.

Primal hunger: not helpful, and not fun

Have you ever been so hungry that you felt like this woman? One of the biggest reasons to eat for hunger rather than external rules is to avoid primal hunger. When your hunger reaches primal levels, all bets are off. Even non-dieters will overeat if they get too hungry, and you’re more likely to make impulsive food choices when you are too hungry.

Plus, frequent dieting teaches your body that personal famines are frequent, so it better stay on guard and grab food when you can. This is one reason why, when you relax your rules a little bit, it can turn into something that feels out of control. Your body and brain are saying, “Hey, she’s letting us eat! Let’s get as much as we can before the next round of the famine.” This can serve to reinforce thoughts and beliefs that you can’t be trusted around food, when really this “rebound eating” is a normal reaction to restriction.

Food insecurity or food scarcity is a form of trauma, and even though dieters don’t generally think of dieting as a trauma, any kind of food restriction creates a sense of scarcity that does leave a mark. The experience of primal hunger can feel frightening, causing people to always want to be in a “fed” state so they don’t experience even gentle hunger.

What if you don’t feel hunger?

If you rarely — or never — experience hunger, even if you’ve gone several hours without eating, then what you are experiencing is hunger silence. Hunger silence is what happens when you don’t know what hunger feels like anymore because you don’t recognize the classic hunger signals. As dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch explain in “Intuitive Eating,” this can happen for many reasons, including:

  • Excessive use of calorie-free beverages. The stomach is repeatedly tricked by being filled up with these beverages, and over time hunger signals grow weak
  • A habit of denying hunger signals. “I can’t possibly be hungry, I just ate two hours ago” or “I’m hungry, but I’m not allowed to eat anything else until dinner.” Deny your hunger signals long enough, and your body will stop sending them. A few years ago, I had a client who was a retired attorney, and she literally did not feel hunger at all. She would get to work early, and skip breakfast and lunch so she could power through and get home to her kids at a reasonable hour. She did this for years and, years, and then stayed in the habit even when her kids were grown. She had no idea of when she should eat, and so she often would not eat all day, even in retirement.
  • A chaotic life. It’s easy to ignore hunger when you’re putting out fires constantly. Over time, it can become hard to notice hunger even when life is calmer. Similarly, if you have a history of trauma you may find it hard to feel hunger, because you need to feel safe in order to feel hunger.
  • A habit of skipping breakfast. Some people skip a morning meal because they find that they feel less hunger the rest of the day when they don’t eat breakfast. But hunger is a normal bodily signal, and silencing it just starts a vicious cycle that includes overeating in the evening. I’ve had many clients who say they only need coffee in the morning, but then express concerns about out-of-control eating at dinner and after dinner.
  • Stress. The biological cascade of stress hormones and neurotransmitters in the body can blunt feelings of hunger.
  • Lack of self-care. When your basic needs aren’t being met, such as the needs for sleep and downtime, this can disrupt your connection to your body.
Identifying hunger: looking beyond the “classic” cues

Just because you don’t feel hunger doesn’t mean your body isn’t hungry and in need of fuel. If you have trouble identifying when you’re hungry, ask (and answer) these questions:

  1. When was the last time you remember feeling hungry?
  2. How does it feel your stomach? In your mouth?

While mild gurgling or a gnawing sensation in the stomach, perhaps with growling noises, are “classic” hunger signals, not everyone feels them. Some people don’t realize they’re hungry until they become lightheaded or have difficulty concentrating. Others don’t feel that mild gnawing sensation, instead going straight to uncomfortable stomach pain. Or, they may become irritable and “hangry,” or perhaps feeling faint or headachy is their first clue they need to eat.

It’s hard to honor your hunger if you have trouble feeling hunger at all, or if your first obvious signs are when you feel like you’re going to either pass out or rip someone’s head off. You may find it helpful to practice eating on a regular schedule until you become more attuned to the earlier stages of hunger.

A general guideline is to go no more than five waking hours without eating. If you are in the habit of going longer than this between meals, pay attention to how your days go when you eat a little more frequently. Is your concentration better? Your mood? Your energy levels? These are clues that you are in fact fueling yourself in the way your body needs.

Considering other types of hunger

One unfortunate aspect of Intuitive Eating’s increasing popularity is that many people try to turn it into a diet. Specifically, the “hunger-fullness” diet, as in you can ONLY eat when you are hungry and MUST stop when you are just getting full. But that’s not what Intuitive Eating is about. “Honor your hunger” isn’t intended to be a rule — it’s a guideline. Why? Well, one reason is that stomach hunger isn’t the only type of hunger.

For example, there’s taste hunger. Taste hunger is what might happen when you’re at a birthday party or a wedding and they’re serving cake. You might not be physically hungry, but you would like to enjoy a slice of cake. Wouldn’t it be sad if on this special occasion you declined because you’re not hungry, even if the cake truly looks delicious?

And then there’s practical or “planning-ahead” hunger. This is what happens when you aren’t hungry at the moment, but this is your last chance to eat for a while, and you know that if you don’t eat now, you will likely become very hungry when you aren’t able to eat. This type of eating is a kindness and important for self-care.

Finally, there’s emotional hunger, which can be almost indistinguishable from primal hunger, as both have an out-of-control feeling. While it’s important to have a variety of coping tools in our toolbox, sometimes food is the only thing that will help, and there’s no shame in that.

Next post Principle 3: Make Peace With Food.

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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!

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