A seemingly simple question such as, “am I hungry right now?” can be so hard to answer in actuality. Why might this question feel so complicated? If contemplating whether you are hungry or not feels hard, has that always been the case? Read on as we break down how our bodies sense hunger, while describing factors that can impact connection to our hunger.
How do our bodies sense hunger?
Before we dive in, let’s get on the same page about what a hunger cue is. We can think of a hunger cue as an indicator that we want or need to eat. Is this idea synonymous with our stomachs growling as a sign of hunger? It can be, but that is not the whole story. Here is an overview of various ways that our bodies can signal hunger, adapted from the Intuitive Eating book and framework.
This type of hunger relates to our biological and instinctual need for energy through food. Physical sensations and psychological shifts that are connected to physical hunger can include: stomach growling, dizziness, headache, fatigue, shakiness, an increase in thoughts about food, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Hormones are key drivers of physical hunger – ghrelin, leptin, and insulin are all involved in the biological regulation of our appetite.
Our thoughts are the main drivers of practical hunger. Practical hunger involves planning ahead, it is proactive, and it can be used in situations where we may have intermittent access to food or the ability to eat. Eating practically helps us eat enough to nourish our bodies, while making it less likely that we feel the unpleasant sensations of extreme hunger. Eating practically may mean choosing to eat even if you are not noticing other hunger cues, and that is totally okay. Some examples of practical hunger can include:
Eating a snack before, during, and/or after exercise to fuel your body, knowing that exercise may impact your appetite
Bringing food with you if you will be out of the house for a while
Eating before a long stretch of meetings or classes
Eating while sick even if you have a low appetite
Eating right upon waking up before your day becomes busy
Eating during a scheduled lunch break
Eating a snack before a late dinner out with friends
There is much more to eating than just meeting our biological needs. Emotional hunger emphasizes that our eating experiences naturally happen alongside our emotions. Foods may carry memories, fears, joy, dread, disgust, nostalgia, excitement, or a variety of other feelings. Emotions can also influence our drive to eat. Maybe you have heard of the term “emotional eating”, which is often vilified in our society due to beliefs that it is bad to eat for any other reason than physical hunger, and even then, we have been conditioned to question this type of hunger too. It can be helpful to approach situations where we are eating in relation to our emotions (either due to overwhelm with, or the avoidance of, emotions) with curiosity and a sense of neutrality, rather than judgment or guilt.
How we sense our food through taste, texture, and temperature is a big part of having pleasurable eating experiences. This type of hunger is influenced by one’s genetics and environment (including one’s family and culture) and can change over time. Taste hunger may arise when something “sounds good” and you become excited about a certain food, and this may happen alongside or independently of the other types of hunger!
We hope this paints the picture that our hunger cues are quite complex and we are asked to make sense of a lot of information when we make food decisions. And after all, each type of hunger is valid and worth honoring. So at times when your hunger cues feel confusing, we invite you to center compassion as you navigate these experiences. A key takeaway is that all of our hunger cues work together to guide us in determining how much to eat, when to eat, and what to eat to help us feel energized and satisfied.
What can make it hard to understand our hunger?
Having an attuned, connected, and intuitive relationship with food is built on a foundation of being able to notice and respond to our hunger cues in a flexible way. Our ability to notice our signs of hunger can be impacted by various physical, emotional, and social factors, and we will be diving into some of those here.
It can be more difficult to sense our physical hunger cues if we are not eating enough or not eating at regular, consistent times. This happens because if we are not eating adequately or reliably, our bodies are wise and will conserve energy by not sending hunger cues. Food insecurity, food scarcity, and intermittent access to food can certainly impact one’s ability to eat regularly and consistently. What else can impact connection to our physical cues? Certain medications may increase or suppress appetite. Our fluid intake and hydration can impact our digestion, hunger, and fullness. Some individuals may naturally experience difficulty with noticing body sensations; this is common for individuals who are neurodivergent due to influences with sensory processing of internal and/or external cues. Dieting, disordered eating, and external rules surrounding eating can also disconnect us from our internal awareness of our body’s cues. It turns out that our bodies cannot distinguish between the physical deprivation that is driven by inadequate access to food, or by a diet. Food is one of our most basic needs and limited food intake by any means can trigger a series of biological and psychological impacts that aim to protect our body against food deprivation.
Stress can impact our ability to sense hunger due to the release of the hormone adrenaline, which activates our body’s fight-or-flight response. In fight-or-flight mode, our bodies want to be able to react quickly, which means it’s helpful to have our blood sugar go up to provide energy, and to not focus on non-essential functions at the time, like digestion. Therefore, our hunger cues become muted with rises in blood sugar and slowed digestion. This stress response can be activated in our day to day lives for a variety of reasons. During times of stress, remember that your body continues to need food and energy, and it may be helpful to lean on practical hunger and opt for eating even when it’s hard to notice your hunger cues.
How we interact with and talk about food in social situations can impact our ability to be in touch with our own food preferences and needs. For example, comments about food that involve terms such as good or bad can ascribe a sense of morality to food. In turn, this can make it more difficult for someone to make food decisions in social situations due to concerns that the morality ascribed to food would influence how others perceive them and their own morality. Another example in which honoring hunger may be more difficult in social situations may be when one person is hungry or eating while others are not. These situations can be emotionally activating for some and may lead to a questioning of one’s own hunger. This questioning may sound like, “how could I already be hungry when my friends aren’t?”. If eating socially is a challenge, it can be helpful to walk through these situations and take an inventory of the factors and emotions at play.
How can one work towards feeling more connected with their hunger?
Getting in touch with hunger cues and staying connected with them is an ongoing process. Eating intuitively is a complex, dynamic process that involves a daily commitment to honoring one’s need for food. It also looks different for everyone. As a starting point, it may be helpful to reflect on how you are meeting each of your basic needs – food, sleep, water, shelter, safety, security, and more. With food specifically, you could also reflect on your typical day to see if there are times when your pattern of eating could be more regular or consistent, knowing that eating at least every few hours is supportive for regulating our hunger and fullness hormones, as well as digestion. Remember that it is normal for hunger, fullness, and eating to look different from day to day.
If you find yourself curious about how to apply this to your life and would like additional support, reach out to us at Woven Nutrition to schedule an appointment. We’re here to support you!