When you hear “intuitive eating,” what do you think? For a lot of people, they think about eating when they’re hungry and giving their body what it wants. But what if you don’t know what hunger feels like? And you can’t tell what your body wants? Unfortunately, this is the case for far too many people.
Years of ignoring our bodies’ cues and instead following food and diet rules can interfere with our ability to experience and interpret our body’s hunger signals. If this is you, it’s not your fault. The diet culture we live in convinces us we need to control and even ignore our hunger.
Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based framework created by two registered dietitians. If you’re not familiar, I highly recommend checking it out! Honoring your hunger is one of the earlier principles of intuitive eating. Let’s dive in!
If you’re hungry, that means you need to eat.
We are born intuitive eaters. Think about babies — they often root, smack their lips, or cry when they are hungry and turn their heads away when they are full. It seems they “just know” when they need food and when they’ve had enough. They aren’t worried about portions, calories or fad diets. It is only through our culture that we are taught otherwise. But, have no fear! You can get back in tune with your hunger again.
Get Curious about What Hunger Feels Like
What does hunger feel like to you? Chances are it doesn’t feel exactly the same as it does for me. Remember: you are the expert of your own body. I love working through the hunger/fullness scale with my clients and helping them notice what they feel like at each point on the scale and using that knowledge to their advantage. It’s different for everyone! And, if you’re not used to paying attention to more subtle signs of hunger, it can be tough to notice.
Hunger may feel like:
- Rumbly, growling or gurgly stomach
- Stomach pain
- Having trouble focusing
- Thinking about food
There is no right or wrong way to feel hunger. If you’re really not sure what hunger feels like to you, it’s time to tune in. When you’ve gone a period of time without eating and you smell or see a really tasty food, how does that make you feel? Some people have health conditions or are taking medications that may interfere with their hunger signals. It doesn’t mean your body is broken. We are all different and intuitive eating is a highly personalized approach that can be adapted to a variety of situations and conditions.
Understand Your Hunger/Fullness Scale
I say “your” hunger/fullness scale instead of “the” hunger/fullness scale because everyone experiences hunger and fullness in different ways. Simply put, a hunger/fullness scale is a scale at which the lowest end is your most hungry and the highest end is your most full. Typically this is seen numerically as 0 to 10 where 0 is extreme hunger and 10 is extreme fullness. Looking at the scale below, can you notice what signs show up for you at various points on the scale?
Ideally, you’d spend most of your time between a 3 and 7. This way, you eat before you get too hungry and you stop eating before you get too full (more on fullness here). In other words, you’re staying in this comfortable, pleasant zone of the scale. Typically, the 0 to 2 and 8 to 10 range is uncomfortable and unpleasant.
When you starting eating around a 3 and finish eating around a 7, this not only helps prevent physical feelings of discomfort, but it also reinforces your trust in your body and your body’s trust in you. You begin to understand what your body is telling you and in turn, you honor that by feeding your body what it wants, when it wants. It also prevents that obsession with food that happens when you get too hungry.
When we wait to eat until we’re at a 2 or below, we’re more often to come to the meal or snack feeling rushed, desperate, or totally disconnected from our bodies. It’s usually not a very enjoyable experience and we might even experience some digestive upset. And, the lower on the scale we start eating, the higher on the scale we’re more likely to end up. Versus when we eat at a 3, we’re usually able to come to a meal or snack in a calm way and eat more slowly and thoughtfully, taking time to really enjoy the meal. We’re more likely to stay present while eating, allowing us to better sense our hunger and stop when we’re comfortably full, at a 7.
Part of honoring your hunger is honoring what you’re hungry for. This means eating what you want. Not trying to “trick” your body into being satisfied with a rice cake when what you really want is a cookie, for example. We aren’t honoring our hunger if we’re restricting types or amounts of food. And trust me, your body knows!
So, if you’re someone who loads up on diet-y foods, what would it be like to explore the full-fat, full-sugar, full-carbohydrate versions of those foods? Do you notice a difference in how satisfying it feels?
Eradicating all forms of restriction is key to honoring your hunger and building trust with your body. If there are foods that make you feel really anxious or scared, or that you feel like you just cannot keep in the house, it’s time to reach out for support.
It’s not always realistic to eat when we’re at a 3 on the hunger scale. Whether it’s a chaotic schedule, demanding tasks or any other real-life factors that get in the way, sometimes it’s difficult to eat exactly when our body wants to. This is part of practical hunger — eating when you know you need to. And, it might mean eating at a point other than a 3. There is no rule that says you can only eat at a 3! Remember, this is simply a tool to help you explore and honor your hunger.
Honoring practical hunger may look like:
- Eating at a 4 or even a 5 when you know you won’t be able to eat for several hours.
- Eating every few hours in the absence of hunger signals because you know your body needs nourishment (there are numerous reasons why hunger signals may not be reliable or present, including illness, an eating disorder, certain medications).
- Eating past a 7 if you know you won’t be able to eat for awhile.
We also might eat past comfortable fullness, and that’s OK! You can read more about that in the post on fullness.
Sometimes we just want food even if those physical hunger signals aren’t there. And that’s totally fine! A crucial part of intuitive eating is giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. And remember, thinking about food is a sign of hunger. Your stomach doesn’t have to be physically rumbling in order for it to be “OK” to eat. It is always OK to eat.
If you find that your only way to cope with intense emotions is to eat, that’s something to get curious about. It’s not bad to eat in response to emotions. But, it’s helpful to have a variety of coping tools! Do you have other coping strategies that feel helpful?
I like to describe coping strategies as a toolkit. It’s nice to have a variety of tools in our toolkit so we can make sure we’re prepared for any project, right? In this metaphor, food is a tool. It’s a fine tool! However, if that’s our only tool, that probably means we’re ill-equipped. Just like if you were working on a project and all you had in your toolkit was a single screwdriver, that wouldn’t be very helpful! You might be in need of wrenches, pliers, hammers, etc. Consider how you can diversify your coping toolkit while at the same time allowing permission to eat in response to emotions. Remember: food is a totally fine tool, but it can only take us so far when it’s the only tool.
If you’re afraid that permission to eat in response to emotions means you’ll go on endless binges, I hear you. This is a common concern for folks who are new to intuitive eating. And it makes sense if you’re used to swinging back and forth from restricting to bingeing. The reality is, if you’ve been dieting or restricting food for any period of time, it is expected that you have a strong drive to eat.
Our bodies are biology wired to seek out food when they sense scarcity. In fact, allowing yourself to “overeat” without punishment afterwards (i.e. through restriction, crash dieting, over exercising, etc.) can be an important part of building body trust. Your body needs to know that you will feed it what it wants, when it wants, without restricting food afterward. This is how we break out of the restrict/binge cycle! If this sounds confusing or scary to you, I highly recommend working one-on-one with an intuitive eating dietitian for personalized support!
Related Post: Binge Eating Disorder: What It Is and How To Treat It
How to Honor Your Hunger: Strategies for Success
Eating when you’re hungry may be harder than it sounds. Here are some strategies to consider and explore!
- Keeping your home stocked with a variety of foods, including quick and easy meal and snack components
- Create a go-to list of meals you can easily make without a recipe
- Doing some gentle meal planning so you feel prepared for the week ahead
- Making grocery shopping a regular part of your schedule
- Doing some meal prep ahead of time to decrease the amount of food labor you have to do each day
- Utilizing convenience foods such as frozen foods and meals, canned beans and soups, prewashed/chopped produce, bagged lettuce, etc.
- Asking for help if you’re the main or only person who shops for and prepares food in your home
- Taking advantage of grocery or meal delivery services
- Adding reminders to your phone or calendar to eat every few hours
- Stashing snacks in your bag, car, desk, etc.
This can be tough work and establishing new routines can take time. If you want individualized support for honoring your hunger, we’re here to help!
I love this, Taylor! Well said as always. Thank you for including my blogpost! <3
Thanks so much for the feedback, Emily!
Cornelle Ellis says
Such a great resource, thank you Taylor!