Hunger and Fullness Cues
A big, and 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 hunger cues with 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.
How we get disconnected from hunger
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.
Here are some common reasons folks become disconnected from hunger cues
1. You’ve been suppressing your appetite
Many years of listening to only outside sources to tell you when, what, and how to eat has made it irrelevant when you’re actually hungry (not to mention what you may want or need). 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.
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, and 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. So once you ditch dieting, you may need to give yourself time to adjust.
2. You’re too busy or distracted to notice gentle hunger
This happens so frequently in our society. 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.
3. You’re neurodivergent
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.
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.
Not sensing your hunger definitely does not mean that you’re not hungry, just that you aren’t used to sensing it.
4. You’re afraid to feel hunger cues
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 until you’re overfull and in pain. 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.
5. You fear gaining weight
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.
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.
6. You have a health condition, like PCOS, which does make food less appealing in the morning
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. 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 to reconnect with hunger cues 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.
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.
Try setting a timer
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.
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.
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 hear and honor your 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.
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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.