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 prioritizing external food 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. The internet is filled with ways to supposedly overcome our hunger.
If you’re hungry, that means you need to eat.
We are born intuitive eaters. Think about babies — they cry when they are hungry and turn away their heads when they are full. 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 definitely get back in tune with your hunger again.
Learn 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. I remember having this conversation with my stepmom when I was a teen and I explained my stomach had a painful burning sensation when I was hungry. She was adamant that hunger did not feel this way and that I was making it up. Don’t let people invalidate your feelings. You are the expert of your own body.
I love having this discussion with my clients because it really helps them begin to understand their bodies’ cues. For some people, hunger can elicit:
- Rumbly, growling or gurgly stomach
- Stomach pain
- Inability to concentrate
- Preoccupation with 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 as a 1 to 10 where 1 is when you feel like you’re starving to death and 10 is when you are so physically stuffed that you’re on the verge of sickness.
Ideally, you’d stay between a 4 and 7. This way, you eat before you get too hungry and you stop eating before you get too full (more on fullness in a future post). Not only does this prevent those 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.
Just like I have clients write down what hunger feels like to them, I also have clients create their own hunger/fullness scale. Describe what it feels like for you to be at each point on your hunger/fullness scale. Then, put it to use by mindfully checking in with your body throughout the day. Where are you on your hunger/fullness scale? Is it time to eat?
Perhaps you aren’t very hungry at this moment but you know you won’t get a chance to eat for several hours so it’s best to eat something right now. Do you stop eating before you’re full? If you’re used to stopping at a 5, try eating until you’re closer to a 6 and then to a 7. This is very nuanced work and it can be super helpful to work with a dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating to help you through this process.
Feed Your Body When It’s Hungry (What It’s Hungry For)
As mentioned above, when you listen to your body’s hunger cues and feed it accordingly, you build body trust. There are many ways to facilitate this process. Here are some ideas:
- Keep tasty, nourishing snacks on hand at all times
- Meal plan and prep
- Stash easy meals in the freezer
- Stock your house with a variety of fun foods
These strategies help with food access and availability but oftentimes there is a lot of mental work to do when it comes to honoring your hunger. Some people don’t believe they should eat, even when they are hungry. Or some people know what they are hungry for (example: a cookie) but choose to eat another food (example: a rice cake) instead. This isn’t honoring your body’s hunger.
There are so many factors to consider, including the quantity of the food and the kind of food. Many people have fears of certain amounts or types of foods. It’s imperative to work with a dietitian who has experience with disordered eating to work through these issues. I cannot emphasize enough: you are not broken and it is not your fault. You can learn your body’s hunger cues and you can honor them in a confident way. It takes work, but support is here.