Author: Breanna Mills R.D.
Simply put, hunger is the signal from our body that tells us when it needs food. This sounds simple in theory, although hunger is often not that simple, especially during recovery from an eating disorder. An eating disorder often disrupts hunger cues, which can make it incredibly difficult to listen to body signals that can guide how much and when to eat.
What is Hunger?
Many of us typically associate hunger with a feeling in our stomach or abdomen, typically a growling or rumbling sensation. Hunger can also be experienced in many other ways such as thinking about food, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, irritability, lack of focus or concentration, nausea, increased thirst, blurred vision, low mood, anxiety, or strong emotions. Our body provides us with many signals of hunger outside of the ones that we typically associate with hunger. Hunger is an individual experience, and you may not experience hunger in the same way that others around you do. That is okay!
Types of Hunger
There can be many different types of hunger. It is important to remember, there may be a variety of reasons that we eat outside of our purely biological need for food and that we don’t have to be the “perfect level” of hunger in order to eat (despite what the eating disorder may say).
This type of hunger signals a need for energy. Many people experience this type of hunger in their stomach or abdomen and others may experience it in different ways, as mentioned previously.
This hunger is defined by our natural craving for nutrients. For example: if you have eaten a meal prepared with very little or no added fats, your body will continue to send hunger cues in order to get what it is lacking. If you continue to deprive your body from the crucial nutrient, enzyme, vitamin, and/or mineral it is lacking, you may have trouble feeling full and satisfied after meals.
Emotional hunger is the type of hunger that involves eating with our emotions. This may involve eating when we are lonely, sad, mad, glad, frustrated, tired, bored, etc. Diet culture tells us that eating in response to emotions is bad or wrong in some way. It makes sense that we seek out food for pleasure and comfort, since if food wasn’t pleasurable, we biologically wouldn’t have the same drive to seek it out. It is okay to eat for emotional reasons. It may also be helpful to consider whether or not we have other tools in our toolbox that help us with our emotional needs, or whether we only know how to cope with emotions through food.
Learned hunger is a type of hunger that is commonly triggered based on the time of day. If we look at the clock and its noon, our brain immediately lets us know that it is “lunch time!” and off we go to get our lunch box. There may be times that we aren’t able to eat exactly on our normal schedule. It is okay to be flexible with our eating times.
While our body does provide us with hunger signals, normal eating is flexible and not rigid and sometimes it is more helpful to be practical regarding our intake needs. Let’s say you are going to see a movie with your friend that starts at 7:00pm and your opportunity to eat is at 6:00pm. What happens if you aren’t hungry at 6:00pm? You may not be hungry now, but you likely will be halfway through the movie. Having something to eat at 6:00pm is intuitive and will help you not to be extremely hungry by the time the movie is done. Sometimes, we may need to tune into our outer wisdom instead of solely relying on our internal wisdom.
No one type of hunger is better or worse than the other. We eat for many different reasons outside of purely filling a biological need for food and it is normal to experience and respond to different types of hunger. It is okay to gain pleasure and positive feelings from eating!
Many client express confusion over their hunger signals in recovery, especially when those signals are re-calibrating after being turned down throughout the eating disorder. The eating disorder can also filter hunger signals through its own lens, which can make it difficult to truly listen and tune into what your body is saying. Here are some common concerns that clients have regarding hunger:
You’ve already eaten a meal and feel hungry soon after
Our hunger needs time to wake up after being ignored for so long. With consistent nourishment, those hunger signals will start to come back and they may come back at times where you aren’t expecting them to, such as after a meal. This can also indicate that we may be missing more gentler or subtle signs of hunger.
You feel you are eating enough
Portioning is always a best guess of how much food we require. A lot of portioning habits are based off previous eating disorder behaviours and it may be difficult to challenge larger or adequate portion sizes. We may be eating more than we used to but may still be consistently undereating. In addition, our body needs time and nourishment to recover from the depleted state it may have been in previously.
Eating disorder makes excuses for hunger
The eating disorder can come up with a variety of excuses for how you couldn’t possibly be hungry. The simplest answer may be the correct one in this scenario. It may be helpful to challenge the narrative that the eating disorder has around hunger. Often, you may just be hungry.
Feeling more hungry than usual
Our body knows what it needs. It is the body’s job to provide us with the signals and it is our job to listen and respond. You could be feeling hungrier than normal for a variety of reasons, and the reason itself may not be that important. What is important, is being able to respond to hunger and provide your body with what it is asking for.
Hunger can be a very confusing experience while in recovery for an eating disorder. Learning to listen and respond to hunger cues takes time, patience and trust. It is possible for hunger signals to fully come back and you will get to a place where you will be able to listen to them! Consistent and adequate nourishment is the key to developing trust with your body to listen and respond to hunger cues.