Do you know what your hunger cues feel like?

Updated: Feb 10

It may sound silly, but many times people don't know what their hunger feels like. Read below to see if you are one of those people and learn why not feeling your hunger could be causing you harm.

We often think of hunger as rather simplistic and natural feeling. In reality, it can be more complicated than we think.

Origins of Hunger

We are all born with a sense of hunger. If you think about it, that was your only job as a baby. You let your caregiver know when you were hungry and when you were full. I often use this example with my clients - think of your favorite food. If somebody put that food in front of you, you would likely eat it regardless of your level of hunger. Now think of a toddler and whatever their favorite food might be. If you put that food in front of a them, there is no telling whether or not they would eat it. That is because when we are younger, we eat food solely based on our hunger (for the most part). As adults, there are several things that have interrupted that direct line of communication between our hunger cues and what we eat. These interruptions could be stress, lack of sleep, anxiety, depression, food restrictions, happiness, boredom, loneliness, etc. Most people eat for several different reasons with only one of those being true hunger. While it is completely normal and part of being a human to eat for reasons outside of hunger, it is when we consistently eat for reasons outside of hunger, or do the opposite and ignore our hunger that we can get in to trouble.

What happens when we consistently eat for reasons outside of hunger?

Let's take feeling anxious for example. The feeling of anxiety rushes over you and you go grab a snack and plant it on the couch for the next couple hours. You likely felt some sort of momentary relief. Eating? Couch? All great things. But when we do this consistently, we are teaching our brains that the correct thing to do when we are feeling anxious is to go eat. Eating may make us feel better in the moment but eating when we are not hungry can throw our hunger cues off for the rest of the day and sometimes leave you with an emotional or physical "hangover".

What happens if we ignore our hunger cues?

Ignoring your hunger cues typically happens when people are are trying to lose weight. However, this can actually backfire. The longer we go ignoring our hunger cues, the more likely we are to binge eat. Have you ever felt "hangry"? You know, the feeling where it doesn't matter what food it is but you need to eat ASAP? When we get this hungry, we often eat whatever we can get our hands on and we usually eat very fast. This doesn't allow for the time that your stomach needs to tell your brain that you are full (about 20 minutes) and we are more likely to eat past the feeling of comfortably full. This too can lead to overeating, weight gain, and/or having an emotional or physical "hangover".

It is important that we listen to our hunger cues but this can be difficult. The first step in listening to your hunger cues is to know what they feel like. If you have a long history of restricting your food intake or eating for reasons outside of hunger, you may not know what true hunger feels like anymore. Taking the time to check in with yourself throughout the day can help you become more in tune with your hunger. While I don't believe in eating based on the clock, if you are somebody who doesn't feel hunger at all, then stopping to check in with yourself at typical breakfast/lunch/dinner times can be helpful. Simply take a moment to ask yourself if you are hungry. If so, how hungry are you? Do you need a meal or a snack? If you are not hungry, check in again in 1-2 hours. Ask yourself the same questions. After you eat, do the same thing. Check in with yourself after meals to ask yourself how full you are. Are you comfortable full or did you eat a few bites too many? If you ate past the point of feeling comfortable, was it because you were distracted? Did you let yourself get too hungry and you ate too fast? Were you feeling sad? Etc.

Get back in touch with your hunger cues.

If you feel like you are somebody who doesn't know what their hunger feels like, I recommend trying the following strategies as you go through your day today.

  • Set alarms on your phone at breakfast, lunch, and dinner times. Ask yourself if and how hungry you are

  • Avoid distractions when eating

  • Check in with yourself after you eat meals. Ask yourself if you are comfortably or uncomfortably full

  • If uncomfortable, what may have contributed to you over eating?