How To Get Your Hunger Cues Back With Intuitive Eating

by | Sep 20, 2022

A super helpful, albeit sometimes difficult, part of the process of becoming an intuitive eater is finding and listening to hunger and fullness cues. At first, this can feel pretty confusing, especially if you’re been dieting for years. But with practice and an eye toward your individuality, you can learn to respond to your body, understand what the subtly different sensations of hunger feel like, and get your hunger cues back.

`If you’re recovering from chronic dieting or an eating disorder, it’s like that you are pretty unsure about your hunger. Is this enough hunger to eat lunch? What about a snack? It can be super confusing when you start intuitive eating, as step 2 is honor your hunger. In this article, I’m going to explain why we get so disconnected from our hunger cues to begin with an then give you some practice strategies for reconnecting with all the different kinds of hunger that we experience. No matter how disconnected you feel, you can learn to trust your body and stop relying on external rules about what to eat and when.

What are hunger cues? (the science of Hunger and Fullness)

I want to start with some nutrition science! This isn’t only because it’s helpful for you to understand (even on a surface level) how your body works, but I want you to see why no matter what you do, your body’s survival mechanism is a powerful force, stronger than your willpower. Let’s talk about hunger and fullness hormones and how powerful these mind-body mechanisms are.

Ghrelin and leptin are the two primary hormones involved in appetite regulation – ie hunger and fullness. When the stomach is empty, ghrelin (the hunger hormone) is released. It sends a signal to your brain to release neuropeptide Y (NPY), which is your carb sensor. This peptide makes you seek out carbohydrates and other foods. It increases more and more until you do eat some food, and then it decreases.

Leptin, on the other hand, the “satiety hormone”, is made adipose (fat) tissue, and tells your brain that the body has enough energy. This signals causes your appetite to decrease and – all things neutral – you’ll stop eating. These two hormones work in what we call a “feedback loop” to maintain homeostasis in your body.

Because starvation is our metabolism’s biggest threat, these intricate systems were designed only to keep us from starving – not to keep us from eating too much. Metabolism and set-point theory is a lesson for another day, but basically these systems are designed to make storing fat as easy as possible.

Hunger signals are a brilliantly designed system of getting your attention so you’ll find some food to eat. They start off small, just little hints here and there, and increase gradually until things are urgent and you cannot carry on without eating.

Interoceptive Awareness

Interoceptive awareness is the process by which the nervous system senses and interprets physical and emotional signals from within the body. The nervous system then gives this information to our conscious and subconscious mind, allowing us to use the information to make decisions.

Sleepiness, hunger, fullness, heartbeat, full bladder, and stress all have physical sensations. You have the ability to notice and experience these subtle, internal sensations and respond to them. The more closely attuned to these sensations you are, the easier a time you’ll have meeting your body’s needs. As you’ll learn about soon, the process of restricting your food intake can mess up your ability to respond to these cues.

Intuitive eaters have higher interoceptive awareness. Improving your interoceptive awareness is the really the “yellow brick road” of intuitive eating. Now I’ll explain how our hunger signals, and our interoceptive awareness, gets messed up and what to do about it.

how hunger signals get messed up

Trying to outsmart your body’s survival system can cause all sorts of dysfunction, as you might imagine. Dieting – eating less than your body needs for homeostasis – puts your body into starvation mode, even if you never become thin. In a period of not enough food, your body adapts by:

  • reduces your metabolic rate (slowing your metabolism)
  • increasing your thoughts about food (so you’ll go find some)
  • changing your mood (to preserve energy, or as a result of low energy)
  • making you tired all the time
  • increased thoughts about food (check out this post about obsessing food thoughts)
  • disrupting sleep
  • stopping menstruation (here’s an article on getting your period back)
  • anxiety about food

In our culture, where being thin is (unfortunately) equated with virtue, well-being, health, and a host of other unearned positive attributes, it’s no wonder so many people put themselves into starvation mode in order to attain it. The act of dieting blunts hunger signals and disconnects us from fullness.

dieting blunts hunger cues

When you’re dieting, hunger doesn’t matter. You are often eating such a small quantity of food per day, often way less than your body needs, so you absolutely have to ignore hunger to get through the day. This ignoring causes them to become blunted and makes it more difficult to notice them. This can even happen if you feel like you’re just “eating clean”, or macro-counting and not eating enough of certain macronutrients, like carbohydrates or fats.

Think about how many times you’ve felt hungry during the morning and tried all the recommended ways to get to lunch. Drink coffee, drink water, drink diet soda, distract yourself. If none of those work, well, you can eat something small – but only raw vegetables or if you’re lucky a few almonds. In time, your body forgets what it feels like to be appropriately hungry for breakfast, lunch, or snacks.

Dieting also makes fullness hard to listen to, which is one reason a lot of dieters also develop binge eating tendencies, or binge eating disorder. Just as we saw in the starvation studies back in World War II, once you’re allowed to eat adequate food again, it’s NORMAL to eat way more than you did before you started dieting. Your body is REACTING to the diet by wanting more and more food.

`So once you ditch dieting, you may need to give yourself time to adjust.

Woman looking sadly at her cereal, unsure if she's hungry

ignoring hunger causes Primal Hunger

After a long period without food, your hunger cues increase and can become extreme. This state of extreme hunger is uncomfortable for both your body and your mind. It is a panicky state, where you can’t think clearly. You get hangry. It’s hard to make rational food decisions.

This is what being overly hungry does to you. This can happen on a day to day basis, like if you skip breakfast or lunch and feel totally ravenous at 2pm. For example, say you went grocery shopping yesterday and have the ingredients to make dinner – maybe some chicken thighs, potatoes, and a side salad. But you leave work in a primal hunger state and cannot dream of taking the time to heat the oven, prepare the chicken, and dress the salad. So you stop on the way home for fast food, or eat a whole bag of chips when you get home.

Rational food decisions out the window.

We also see people who have experienced food insecurity or famine are more likely to develop eating disorders and binge eating, specifically. This is not unlike what happens when we decide to restrict out food in take in order to lose weight. Primal hunger creates the need to overeat.

being overly busy or distracted

When we are over-scheduled and rushing from one task to the next without downtime, we may not notice our hunger signals or choose to ignore them. This happens so frequently in our society where productivity culture is so strong. Many jobs don’t encourage us to take adequate breaks, long enough lunches, and require you to be “always on”, constantly checking email or burdened with too many tasks.

But for some of us, this is self-imposed, even if the urge to do it came from the culture. Capitalism is definitely to blame for this, and often people more marginalized in the workplace, like women, BIPOC, or folks in larger bodies, feel that they need to prove themselves by working extra hard. They hold themselves, and are held, to impossibly high standards.

Working on dismantling diet culture, the patriarchy, and anti-fat bias can help you stop overworking yourself and learn to prioritize your self-care over responding to your bosses email. I know this is a whole can of worms. But in Audre Lorde’s words, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

For some, it can require that you actively prioritize your self-care during your workday. Many work environments do not make that easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to skip lunch. This may mean making slight alterations to your schedule or talking to your boss or colleagues.

fear of feeling hungry

Extreme hunger is a binge trigger for many people, so it makes sense that it would become scary if so often when you feel that type of intense hunger, you end up eating in a frantic manner or binging until you’re overfull and in pain.

Fear of weight gain

This fear can come up all the time when you’re in the beginning stages of Intuitive Eating. It is normal in our culture to want to adapt to the cultural narrative that “thin is better”. But the truth is that body diversity is real and accepting this will take you way further than striving for the unattainable.

I know it’s hard at first to push through the fear of weight gain when you’ve been told that skipping breakfast or staying under a certain number of calories is the way to lose weight or maintain your weight. Eating consistently throughout the day has a ton of benefits including increased energy and mood, fewer cravings later in the day, and regulated blood sugar.

Other reasons we may not respond to hunger

neurodivergence

Folks who are not neurotypical could, but don’t always, have a hard time with interoceptive awareness, which is your ability to intellectually make sense of physical and emotional body states. According to Shira Collings, MS, NCC, of RDs for Neurodiversity, neurodivergent folks who have a hard time sensing hunger and fullness may need to use more time-based eating than neurotypical folks.

Not sensing your hunger definitely does not mean that you’re not hungry, just that you aren’t used to sensing it.

Trauma History

If you have a history of trauma, you could be very disconnected from your body. The research about trauma, eating disorders, and the body have become more popular in recent years, with The Body Keeps The Score having a resurgence.

There is a very high incidence of trauma in folks with eating disorders. And it makes sense really. Trauma, whether it’s sexual violence, racial trauma, or a traumatic event like war or a car accident, happens upon the body. The nervous system becomes very disrupted after a state of extreme fear and disruption.

If you’ve experienced significant trauma in your life, it’s likely you feel disconnected from you body. This is a protection mechanism, which is actually a smart way that your body and your nervous system have tried to protect you.

a health condition that affects blood sugar, like PCOS or diabetes.

It is true that for those with PCOS, appetite can be suppressed in the morning and not really kick in until mid-day. This is due to circadian rhythm disturbances that are common with PCOS. Even if your appetite is not strong during the beginning of the day, you can still have negative effects of not eating.

Often those with PCOS who do not feel like eating early, get ravenous later in the day and then eat more than they would if they had eaten earlier. This also causes carb cravings. It’s not easy, but finding some meals and snacks that you can tolerate (and hopefully enjoy) even though your appetite is not strong can help.

How eating disorders affect hunger cues

Folks with eating disorders can have very disrupted hunger signals for many psychological, biological, and environmental reasons. At a biological level, chronic restriction of food intake or repeated cycles of bingeing and purging can alter the hunger and fullness hormones, ghrelin and leptin.

For example, in the case of anorexia nervosa, prolonged food restriction and decreased body fat causes leptin to decrease. And ghrelin won’t increase as much in response to fasting. This hormonal imbalance can blunt the hunger signals, making you less able to respond to your hunger cues.

The psychological aspects of eating disorders, including intense fear of gaining weight and distorted body image, can override the natural hunger signals, leading individuals to ignore or misinterpret them.

The long-term and constant suppression of hunger cues can create a vicious cycle that makes recovery challenging. Research has shown that these changes in hormone levels and hunger signals often persists long after significant weight restoration or once binging and purging has stopped. This is often a very difficult, but very important part of eating disorder recovery – understanding that it may take a long time for your hunger cues to return to normal.

This is also why intuitive eating should not be used literally in the beginning phases of eating disorder recovery. Your hunger cues will be too distorted and will not lead you toward eating enough to fully recover.

If you or your loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, let me help you!

I offer compassionate, expert eating disorder nutrition counseling for all types of eating disorders. Reach out today or book an appointment to get started.

How to tell if you’re hungry

Your body sends you lots of messages when it’s hungry, but if you’re been dieting or are in recovery from an eating disorder, or are neurodivergent, the more subtle signals could be getting lost and all you feel are the more intense hunger cues. Here are the body’s many hunger cues and what they feel like:

  • lightheadedness
  • thoughts about food
  • gurgling or gnawing in the stomach
  • irritability
  • easily distracted or hard time concentrating
  • headache
  • growling noises
  • stomach pain
  • feeling faint

Hold on… I’m hungry now. Gonna go make breakfast and take a break….

Your hunger and fullness signals go up and down throughout your day – like a wave. You wake up on an empty stomach and then your hunger signals will gradually get stronger until you eat. While you’re eating, your hunger signals lessen and fullness kicks in. Then after your meal, you’re at the height of fullness, which diminishes in the hours after a meal as you hunger increases once again. In order to get back your hunger cues and learn to respond to them in a peaceful and healthy way, you need to get more in touch with the nuances of your individual hunger cues.

9 steps to get your hunger cues back using intuitive eating

Learning to hear and respond to gentle hunger is a super important and healing part of the intuitive eating journey. If you feel very disconnected from gentle hunger, take a look at your day and figure out where there’s a gap. You need breakfast, lunch, dinner, and often at least one snack.

Being disconnected from your body’s hunger and fullness signals is common with chronic dieters and those who deal with disordered eating. It can feel confusing when you start digging into Intuitive Eating and you hear you’re supposed to be eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. I mean, sure sounds easy enough, but in practice it can be anything but.

Please don’t be hard on yourself if you have a hard time responding to gentle hunger, or if you feel far away from calmly responding to hunger cues while doing intuitive eating.

When starting on this journey, it can be tempting to get overly worried about why you’re eating past fullness or are not feeling your hunger cues. I know it’s hard, but try not to worry too much about that for now, and just get curious about understanding and honoring your unique sensations of hunger.

recognize you need to eat consistently, and enough

It can be tough to eat enough when you’re still unhappy with your body or are recovering from disordered eating. But it is essential. Getting adequate calories, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins in your body on a daily basis is the number one best thing you can do to get your hunger signals back.

There is no one-size-fits all approach to eating enough, but I usually recommend starting with 3 meals a day at one snack. Some folks, especially if you’re weight suppressed or recovering from binge eating disorder, may need 3 meals and 2-3 snacks a day in order for your body to calm down and feel adequately, consistently nourished.

Think of it like this – you want your body to TRUST that it has enough food, and that you will not be starving it again, in order for your metabolism to return to normal and for you to find your set-point weight.

Eat breakfast

Skipping breakfast, for whatever reason, is not a great way to start your day. I know that intermittent fasting is popular these days, but that does not mean it’s right for you. Eating breakfast is super important, especially in ED recovery, for folks with PCOS, or for people who like to exercise.

The first step is usually finding a couple of breakfasts that work for you. Yogurt and granola, toast and peanut butter, leftover beans and rice, an egg or two with a dollop of hummus, a breakfast taco, whatever pleases you. Just start off by trying something small. And if possible, eat it mindfully and not in the car.

What to notice: pay attention to how eating breakfast changes your appetite and mood throughout the day. Notice how you feel mid-afternoon if you ate a breakfast with enough carbs and protein.

So even though difficult feelings may come up at first when you start trying to eat breakfast, eventually you’ll notice your eating is calmer and you feel much better throughout the day.

put yourself on a schedule

Using time-based eating is commonly necessary for folks in eating disorder recovery, but may be helpful long-term strategy for people who struggle with interoception. Basically, this means you need to eat every 2-5 hours, instead of relying on those cues.

Connecting with hunger and fullness can be hard to remember to do. I often suggest my clients set a timer for every 2 hours and check in with their fullness levels. You can use the intuitive eating hunger scale to gauge where you are at that moment. There is no magic in this. All you are doing is bringing attention and awareness to your body at regular inteverals. The more you do it, the more natural it will feel to check in with your body, notice where it’s at, and give it what it needs.

Learning to recognize subtle hunger can be a really helpful exploration on the path of healing from binge eating. Really, we need to be eating every 2-6 hours, so there may be a period of time where you need to eat on a schedule until your hunger signals come “back online”. This process can be very scary and emotional, so it is often a good idea to work with a dietitian and therapist trained to work with eating disorders.

use the intuitive eating hunger scale

When getting in touch with hunger cues, you want to notice all of them, not just the extreme ones. Spend a couple weeks noting when you’re a 3, a 4, a 5 on the hunger scale. How does it feel when you eat at a 3? What about a 4? How full do you tend to get if you let yourself eat before you become ravenous?

Click here to download a version of this hunger scale for yourself.

be patient and persistent

Your body’s hunger and fullness cues are emotionally neutral information. If you’re physically hungry, it’s for a good reason. You need food. You definitely don’t need to judge yourself for being hungry. Hunger is your body’s natural way of telling you it’s time to eat. It should be as morally neutral as having to pee or feeling tired. There is no reason to distrust your hunger cues.

But as we know, diet culture make hunger something to fear instead of something to honor. It’s important to be aware that if you’re just starting with intuitive eating and trying to reconnect with your hunger cues for the first time, it’s possible it will feel like a lot of eating for a while. This is normal and should calm down soon.

Experiment with different types and amounts of food

This is not likely going to happen overnight, so get used to that. Use a food journal to write down how different hunger levels feel in your body. Take note of how you feel when you eat 2 eggs and 2 pieces of toast for breakfast, vs when you have a smoothie. Notice when your hunger returns based on the food that you eat. As you continue to notice these subtleties, you’ll be strengthening your interoceptive awareness and learning to trust your body more.

Check your diet mentality

I’ll say it again – make sure you’re not actively trying to restrict your food intake. This will keep you from learning about what true hunger feels like as it will keep you stuck in a loop of trying to eat less and distrusting your hunger.

You need to lean into curiosity and compassion when it comes to hunger, not distrust. This is hard work! But you can do it – just take it slow and use lots of self-compassion.

Recognize you’re a human, not a robot

Remember that there is no “right answer” to the perfect thing to eat or time to eat. Human bodies are constantly changing. If you mensturate, you also have hormonal shifts and changing throughout the month that will ebb and flow your hunger cues. Try not to treat your body like a machine, but rather like the living, breathing being that it is.

If you’re worried that you’re just going to eat and eat and eat, try writing in a journal. Explore why this is so scary for you. You may also want to reach out for help if this fear is keeping you from doing the work to eat enough.

use self-care eating

Sometimes you may have to eat when you don’t feel hungry yet, like if you’re going to be in a meeting over lunch or if you know you’re going to go a long period without food. There may also be times that you want to eat when you know you’re not hungry – and this is okay too.

Make sure you don’t try and force yourself into the hunger-fullness diet, where you only let yourself eat when you’re hungry and stop the moment you become full. That is also a diet.

Getting your hunger cues back takes time

Going through these three steps, day after day, week after week, will definitely improve your ability to sense hunger and fullness cues. I hope this helps explain why it can be so hard to sense hunger cues and how intuitive eating can help. It’s important to give yourself time, patience, and compassion in this process. You deserve to have a peaceful relationship to food, and in time, you will get there.

If you want help understanding how to eat to suit your body’s needs, I’d love to help. I specialize in helping folks with disordered eating, eating disorders, intuitive eating, body image, and women’s reproductive health. You can sign up for my email list to get regular bits of helpful information about ditching dieting, using intuitive eating, and all things self-care.

And if you want to get to work with an anti-diet dietitian, book an appointment with me for group or 1-1 nutrition therapy.

Questions? Comments? I’d love to hear from you. Comment below or send me a message.

About Emily

Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in intuitive eating, mindfulness-based eating practices, embodiment with food and movement, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps womxn find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her here.

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emily on couch intuitive eating counselor near me

Hey there, I´m Emily

A non-diet and weight-inclusive dietitian, nutrition therapist, and body image healer. Here on the blog, I share recipes, tips on living a healthy life without the oppressive, fear-mongering diet culture rhetoric, and get fired up about the subtle ways the patriarchy has harmed womens’ health. I want us all to be free to own our appetites, our desires, and eat really, really well. 

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