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Hunger and Fullness with an Eating Disorder

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This post was written by Jessica Steinbach, MPH, RD.

The hunger/fullness scale is a commonly used intuitive eating tool that is intended to help folks connect to their internal cues related to hunger and satiety. This tool can be complicated for those recovering from an eating disorder, especially when hunger and fullness cues may feel inaccessible, confusing or overwhelming. This blog post will help you navigate hunger and fullness as you learn to understand, reconnect or connect more deeply to your body’s cues during your recovery journey. 

Hunger and fullness can be overwhelming feelings to experience, especially if we think that one or both of these feelings indicate that we are doing something wrong. Diet culture may tell you that if you are “perfectly” eating then you will settle in a zone where you rarely feel hungry or full. This simply is not true. Connecting with how the body communicates that it needs more nourishment or that it is satisfied can be instrumental in healing your relationship with food. 

A young brunette woman is taking a bite of a double cheeseburger

How do eating disorders impact hunger and fullness cues?

Eating disorders and disordered eating can greatly complicate the ability to understand bodily communication related to hunger and fullness. The body may begin to silence these cues or you may feel confused about how to understand what a body cue means. 

Oftentimes, disordered eating is centered around ignoring hunger and passing it off as fatigue, thirst, anxiety, etc. Your eating disorder might tell you that it’s wrong to eat when you’re hungry or that you’ve somehow accomplished something by not eating when you’re hungry.

Eating disorders can cause early satiety, meaning you feel full before you’ve eaten enough. And, there can be a lot of fear around eating to fullness when you have a restrictive eating disorder. Eating disorders can also mute fullness as a way to numb feelings and emotions or to gain control.

During the recovery process, both hunger and fullness cues may feel more intense as the body adjusts to eating a consistent amount of food. In early stages of recovery, eating according to a meal plan may be necessary for proper nourishment, as hunger and fullness cues are not reliable. Consult your dietitian and therapist before deciding to veer from your current plan. Using the hunger/fullness scale in recovery is not a requirement and may not be appropriate for every person! Let’s look at how to assess readiness to utilize this scale in recovery.

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Using the Hunger/Fullness Scale in Eating Disorder Recovery

Eating according to a meal plan is often the first step in beginning the recovery process. This is not only important for nourishment, but it also helps your hunger and fullness cues become more reliable!

Once you feel comfortable with following your meal plan, you may begin to feel ready to dive deeper into intuitive eating, which includes (but it is not limited to) tapping into hunger and fullness. Make sure you discuss this with your care team!

Questions to ask yourself when assessing readiness to rely more on hunger and fullness cues:

  • Have I been consistently following the meal plan my dietitian and I established? 
  • Have I felt capable of following my current meal plan, even on days when the eating disorder voice may be loud? 
  • Do I understand that my hunger/fullness cues may shift day to day?
  • Do I feel ready to eat when I need to, even if my hunger cues are not presenting strongly? (i.e. if you have a meeting during lunch and need to eat before) 
  • Do I feel confident that I understand what an appropriate amount of food is for me? Can I honor these nutrition needs without a meal plan?
  • Do I feel able to return to my meal plan if hunger/fullness cues are feeling overwhelming and impacting the amount I am eating? 
  • Will I reach out to my team for support during this process? 

If you do not feel ready to begin making your own scale after answering these questions, work with your team on ways that you can identify cues while continuing to follow your current meal plan. 

text that says "how to use the hunger/fullness scale during eating disorder recovery" with a visual depiction of the hunger/fullness scale, which ranges from 0 to 10, with 0 being extreme hunger and 10 being extreme fullness

Exploring Your Hunger/Fullness Scale

Once you feel like you have an understanding of what hunger and fullness may feel like for you, and you have assessed your readiness to utilize these cues, you can begin making your own hunger/fullness scale. You can do this with your dietitian!

When we do this with our clients, we work with them to create a personalized hunger/fullness scale that is unique to their hunger and fullness cues. This can be a helpful tool as you get reacquainted with what different levels of hunger and fullness feel like for you.

Hunger and fullness cues may shift over time as you continue to connect more with your body or as your body changes. You can always revisit your scale and make adjustments as necessary.

And, eventually, you may not even need to refer back to your hunger/fullness scale as you become a more intuitive eater and find it easier to connect with and respond to body cues without having to think about it so much.

Don’t have a dietitian? Reach out for support or search for treatment here!

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A list of 7 questions to ask yourself about hunger and fullness during eating disorder recovery

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