Often when I ask people what they know about intuitive eating, their response is: "you eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full." This isn't wrong by any means, but it is an oversimplification of intuitive eating. Today we will learn why it's critical to relearn your hunger as an intuitive eater, especially for the person healing from diet culture or an eating disorder.
What Is Physical Hunger?
Simply put - physical hunger is a body cue that happens when there is an absence of food which is communicated by a lower blood sugar (more on this later). It is a biological drive to eat. So it stands to reason that just as when we are thirsty we get a drink of water or if we need to go to the bathroom we listen to that as well. Unfortunately, our relationship to our physical hunger gets more confusing because of the messages we hear in diet culture about hunger. Physical hunger is viewed as the enemy and not to be trusted. So instead of listening to our physical hunger, we are encouraged to become deaf to our cues and trick our body with whatever the latest fad is to not feel hunger.
That's not how we were designed though...
God is a creative creator. He could have created our bodies, which include our GI tract, any way He deemed good. He decided to have a beautifully coordinated system of hormones that work together to produce the sensation of physical hunger.
So, what causes physical hunger?
Spoiler- I'm about to get a little technical but hang in there with me.
Physical hunger is primal, necessary for survival. The way we know this is because it is found in one of the oldest part of the brain- the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is sent messages from throughout the body to coordinate many messages, including hunger.
There are 5 dominant "messengers" in hunger:
Glucose. Glucose comes from carbohydrate containing foods. It is present in the blood stream and stored in the muscle and liver. Maintaining blood glucose is ESSENTIAL for life, so when a person's blood glucose drops it is a signal that will trigger the hormone glucagon. This is one of the reasons that it's important to eat consistent meals and snacks throughout the day.
Glucagon. Glucagon is a hormone that increases as blood glucose decreases. This will communicate "hey, it's time to eat to get more glucose."
Ghrelin. Ghrelin is thought to be the primary hunger hormone. Ghrelin increases which will cause a person to feel hungry. It reaches its peak about 4 hours after the previous eating occurrence. If a person does not eat when they feel their hunger, Ghrelin can build and build and leave a person feeling ravenous at their next eating occurrence.
Neuropeptide Y. Neuropeptide Y is a chemical produced in the brain often nicknamed the "Carb Craver." Neuropeptide Y increases when we are hungry, especially with low carbohydrate intake. This is important because our body's primary fuel source is glucose which we get from carbohydrate foods. This chemical produced by the brain will build and build just as Ghrelin can. This leaves a person desiring highly palatable carbohydrate foods and can lead to us feeling out of control around that food.
Serotonin. Serotonin is another brain chemical that is housed in the "pleasure center" of the brain. Serotonin decreases when a person is hungry. This often leads someone to feel irritable or uncomfortable when hungry. Serotonin then increases when we eat and produces the "calm" feeling after a meal. This reinforces eating as a pleasurable activity.
Do you need to remember all of that? Most certainly not. That's what I'm here for! But what it helps us understand is that our body isn't telling us we are hungry because we don't have enough willpower or because we are bad. It is our body's equivalent to the "low fuel" light in your car. Think for a second what would happen if you ignored your car's low fuel warning. You would be stranded on the side of the road and have to put A LOT of fuel to get it back to full. Similarly if our bodies are "on empty" we are going to need more food and our body is going to signal that.
Why Can't I Feel My Hunger Cues?
There may be a couple reasons.
The first is that you may not be used to tuning in and that makes sense. Hunger cues take all sorts of forms and it takes time to decipher your personal cues. Here are some examples of hunger cues:
Stomach cues: Stomach growling, Empty feeling in stomach, Nausea
Mind/Head cues: Difficulty concentrating, Preoccupation with Food, headache, dizziness
Mouth/Throat cues: Increased salivation in your mouth
Change in Mood: irritable, anxious, sad, etc
Another reason you may not be able to detect your hunger cues is the presence of "attunement disrupters." Attunement disrupters are things that when present make it challenging for us to listen to our body's cues. So even if you have done the work on healing your relationship with your hunger, this can happen from time to time. Examples of attunement disrupters include:
Physical: poor sleep, missed meals/snacks, dieting behavior, compulsive/excessive exercise, drinking alcohol, being sick/injured
Emotional: guilt/shame with eating, harsh self-talk, poor self esteem, not taking time to relax, not using coping mechanisms for emotions
Relationships: not setting boundaries, not having enough support, feeling disconnected, recent break up, never saying no
Spiritual: not spending time in nature, not creating space for regular religious practices (prayer, meditation, scripture reading), focusing on material things, not practicing gratitude, not reflecting on your purpose
Finally, it may be that you have been in starvation mode from dieting or from an eating disorder. When that is the case, it is important to know that there are significant metabolic changes that happen (which are discussed here). It will be especially important to work with a trained professional to help create a nutrition back up plan until your hunger cues have emerged.
How can I relearn my hunger cues?
As our earlier science lesson taught us, a good place to start is consistent meals and snacks eating every 2-4 hours. Including all food groups, including carbohydrate containing foods, helps with our hunger as well because it keeps our Neuropeptide Y messenger happy and promotes satiety (which we get into soon). It's important to note that at first this may be somewhat mechanical eating. Is it not uncommon to not feel hungry at all when first navigating this journey but trust your professional Intuitive Eating Guide, whoever you have chosen that person to be. From here, it is important to work on your relationship with food as how we think and relate to individual foods does play a role in our hunger and fullness. You can learn more about here.
How long does it take for hunger cues to return?
This is a question I hear frequently in my work and my response is the same each time. There's no one answer to this. Hunger cues return when they feel that the body is consistently cared for.
When your body's cues first re-emerge you may feel hungry at times that "don't make sense" and that is okay. It is safe to eat at those times. The more that our body signals hunger and we respond with food that is nourishing that hunger it will strengthen that cue over time.
Relearning hunger is a critical step for intuitive eating. While restoring hunger cues can take time, your role is to consistently eat meals and snacks and listen for hunger cues. When you feel your hunger cues respond with food and kindness to allow your cues to normalize over time.
Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works
Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food
Today's Dietitian. Appetite Hormones: https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/070115p26.shtml