Our body is great at letting us know when we need to do something in order to keep us well. When you feel cold, you do something to warm up. You know the signs that tell you that you need to go to the toilet and you don’t question it! But when it comes to hunger, many of us tend to act completely differently. Rather than seeing hunger as a natural, non-emotional sign we should respond to, it can be viewed as a weakness or something to battle.
People who haven’t been dieters usually eat when they are hungry and stop when the hunger fades and they are satisfied. But those who have been trying to lose weight often view it differently. Hunger is questioned – “How could I possibly be hungry, I ate a big lunch?!” or “Today is a fast day, I simply cannot eat”. We try to mute our hunger by filling up on coffee or water. We praise ourselves for fighting it and get angry at ourselves if we eat out of the scheduled eating times or we can’t stick to fast days for weight loss or super low-calorie days. If this is you, it’s time to change your perspective.
Hunger is a natural body cue that we can trust. Our hunger and fullness signals exist only to drive eating behaviour. We don’t get hungry because we need to do something else, such as go to sleep. It’s how we are able to regulate our eating. Using and trusting our body’s own in-built hunger and fullness signals is the most accurate way we can gauge the right amount to eat at a meal – not external rules.
Ignoring our hunger until it is at its extreme often leads to us eating past the point of physical comfort, as our hunger hormones are high. It’s an evolutionary response to ensure we don’t starve – an unlikely notion in the Western world, but our bodies do not know any different. While it is a natural response, we see it as a sign of weakness or that we’re a failure. It’s not! Learning how to listen to our hunger and fullness signals again and eating food that satisfies us can help us eat and enjoy the right amount for our bodies.
There are other factors that influence our hunger and fullness signals and we can best trust hunger and fullness when we are hydrated, calm and well rested. Sleep deprivation and high levels of stress can interfere with these signals. In these cases, it can be useful to use some external cues to make sure you are still taking care of yourself. For example, in situations of high stress, you may simply not feel hungry. In these cases, we can view eating as a form of self care. For example, if you know it’s been five or more hours since you’ve eaten, a snack or meal will help you take care of yourself. And, of course, we want to make sure we can do what we can to remedy the situation with stress management, good sleep and relaxation.
Occasionally there may be medical reasons why we may have increased levels of hunger, but there are usually other signs that point to these conditions. If you think something is just not quite right, it pays to see your GP for a check-up.
Learning to tune into your hunger, fullness and satiety is a part of the non-diet approach to nutrition, also known as intuitive eating. If you’re over diets, food rules and feeling out of control around food, the best thing you can do investigate this approach – it may just be what you need to transform your eating patterns.
Nicola Jackson is a NZ-registered nutritionist with a passion for helping people to develop a healthier relationship with food. Nicola’s blog Eat Well NZ tells you why you don’t need to quit foods, follow rules, or go to the extreme to be healthy. Her blog showcases a balanced approach to eating well, with plenty of healthy recipes and other tips on nutrition, fitness and wellness. You can also find Nicola on Facebook and Instagram.