The first principle was all about working to get out of the diet mentality that has likely been deeply ingrained in you. Now it is time to tune in to your hunger and also honor it. Learning to listen to your hunger will set the stage for rebuilding your trust around food (1). We will be discussing why hunger is natural, a historical study on starvation, tips for how you can start listening to hunger, and finally I will leave you with some journal prompts like I did last week.
Think for a minute about all of the things that your body does naturally for you. Your lungs provide you with oxygen. Your heart pumps blood throughout your body. You get the gist. These are all a part of your basic physiological needs. Just like your body needs air, water, and sleep, it also needs food. So why is it that we so often deprive ourselves of what our bodies need to carry on their daily functions? I once heard another dietitian ask the question: “When you need to use the restroom, you don’t just hold it and try to ignore that urge—so why do you do the same with your hunger cues?”
The Minnesota Starvation Study
Our bodies are much smarter than we give them credit for. When we are not fulfilling our energy needs (ie. eating), our bodies detect this as starvation and respond accordingly. A classic example of this comes from the famous Ancel Keys Minnesota Experiment (2,3). This study was set during World War II and was designed to help famine sufferers. 32 healthy men were selected due to their superior mental and physical health. Over the course of the study, the men were required to cut their average caloric intake in half to simulate a semi-starvation state. The response bore a striking resemblance to what we see in chronic dieters today. Here were some of the findings that stood out:
- Metabolic rates decreased by 40%
- Participants experienced food obsession and heightened cravings
- Eating styles changed
- Bulimia episodes were reported by some participants
- Some engaged in deliberate exercise to increase their food rations
- Personalities changed
We Need ALL Macronutrients
These findings were remarkable, but certainly not surprising based on what we know to be true today. You have probably experienced many of these same side effects of deprivation in your own life. While eating and hunger is often portrayed as something we can manipulate through “self-control” and restriction, there are actually nerve cells of appetite located in the hypothalamus region of our brains (4). Therefore it is not a matter of willpower, but actually a biological drive. However, when we restrict, this actually switches on neurochemicals that induce eating. For example, Neuropeptide Y (NPY) is one of these chemicals produced in our brains that turns on a switch for our drive to eat carbohydrates. We often find the NPY levels to be the highest in the morning after a period of fasting while sleeping. As you can imagine, the NPY is only further revved up by mid-afternoon if you also skipped breakfast. This might explain a sense of “hanger” and potential binges when you have gone too long without eating.
Bottom line—we need all of the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fats) on our plates. It’s not uncommon for people to turn to cutting out carbs to dangerously low levels (ie. ketogenic and paleo diets). However, our bodies need carbohydrates as the preferred source of energy for the central nervous system and to fill-up our depleted glycogen stores. If you’re not getting carbs, then your body starts to compensate by breaking down muscle to be converted as glucose. While people may claim that they are losing weight on these low-carb diets, you are actually losing about 3-4 pounds of water with each pound of muscle lost (1). Spoiler alert—please just don’t go on a ketogenic diet!!
Start Listening for Your Hunger
In order to begin to honor your biological hunger, you need to start listening for it. One of the first exercises I have clients work through is keeping a hunger and fullness journal. Notice how I didn’t say to keep track of what you are eating using the Fitbit app. I often find that those tools actually lead to more food obsession in both my personal and professional experience. Instead we are taking a different approach to tracking. Check in with yourself several times during the day. If journaling isn’t your style, you can use the Notes app on your phone to jot down what you notice. Not sure what to look for? Here are some common indicators that you are hungry:
- stomach is growling or gurgling
- feeling faint or lightheaded
- difficulty concentrating
Once you start to see a pattern in your body’s hunger cues, you can then begin to use this scale to identify your hunger and fullness level.
As you start to notice the patterns in your eating, I encourage people to feel somewhere in the “satisfied” to “full” spectrum while eating. As for preparing for your next meal, it’s important to do your best to avoid falling in the “ravenous” spectrum. Don’t feel defeated if this is challenging at first. Just think of all of the years you spent feeling guilty about eating. It will take a little bit of work and patience to get in tune with your body.
Sidenote for Eating Disorders/Disordered Eating
I do also want to mention that if you have been severely restricting your intake or fall in the eating disorder/disordered eating category, Intuitive Eating is not going to be appropriate for you just yet. Often when your biological hunger has been silenced for so long, you aren’t necessarily well-equipped in this stage to determine when you are hungry or full. I encourage you to work with a care team that includes a dietitian with eating disorder experience to help you through the early stages of recovery.
I also want you to know that just because you aren’t hungry, this doesn’t mean you can’t eat. Food is also a form of pleasure that can bring joy to your life. Sometimes we also don’t notice our hunger in the rush of life. For example, when you are nervous for an event, you might have suppressed hunger. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat because you don’t have hunger pangs. Intuitive Eating is also about honoring your body’s need for nutrients to thrive.
- What are some ways you have restricted eating in the past? Can you identify any patterns in behavior during that time? Bingeing? Cravings? Irritability?
- As you start taking note of your hunger and fullness, what do you notice? What are your hunger indicators?
- What are some ways you can honor your body’s needs? (both biological and emotional)
- Tribole, E. & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive eating, 3rd edition. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.
- Keys, A. (1990). Recollections of pioneers in nutrition: from starvation to cholesterol. Journal of American College of Nutrition, 9, 288-291.
- Kalm, L. M. & Semba, R. D. (2005). They starved so that others be better fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Experiment. The Journal of Nutrition, 135(6), 1347-52.
- Ahima, R. S., & Antwi, D. A. (2008). Brain regulation of appetite and satiety. Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America, 37(4), 811–823. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecl.2008.08.005