Ever wonder if you are really hungry?

Kayla Bell, MPH, RD, LD

            I get it. Diet culture and wellness culture frame hunger as a bad thing, subtly signaling that if you’re not 100% certain you’re hungry, you probably shouldn’t eat. We paint eating in this context as inappropriate, immoral, or even harmful. Slowly we learn to second guess our internal cues. We’re told, “You can’t be hungry. You’re probably just bored or thirsty.” Understandably, we begin to doubt ourselves and look to external sources, like the clock or calories, to police our appetite.

            But the truth is, from the moment you were born, you had the instinct to eat. (Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here now). Long before you were able to rationalize, you trusted physical sensations that indicated your energy was waning, then you fussed, or cried, or even screamed to let your caregivers know you were hungry. And when you’d had enough, no amount of cajoling could get you to eat more. This reliance on our internal cues is called interoceptive awareness and it’s the way we were meant to relate to our biological needs.

            You did not feel self-conscious about the sensation you were feeling or responding to as an infant. You did not need others around you to also be hungry to give you permission to eat. Nor did you refer to Instagram or TikTok to reassure yourself. You trusted your body, even if it had only been a short time since you last ate, no matter how many calories you had eaten. You trusted your gut, so to speak.

            Trusting your interoceptive awareness is key to Intuitive Eating and has all sorts of positive physical and mental health benefits, like improved quality of life, improved metabolic panels, and protection against developing or relapsing from an eating disorder. Plus, eating enough and eating regularly are key to maximizing your metabolic efficiency, advice you will rarely, if ever, hear from a wellness influencer, or even your medical doctor, but it’s true.

Let’s review the potential signs and symptoms of hunger, so you know what to look for:

  • Thinking about food
  • Headaches
  • Irritable or easily annoyed
  • Bad breath or a weird taste in your mouth
  • Nausea
  • Hiccups
  • Salivating
  • Burping
  • Trapped gas
  • Bloating
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Losing focus
  • Heartburn or acid reflux
  • Feeling increasingly agitated, uncomfortable, or restless
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating (without being in a hot place)
  • Anxiety or panic
  • Stomach growling, gurgling, or rumbling

            This blog post would not be complete without including a caveat: people with active eating disorders should never attempt to go straight to Intuitive Eating because they have unreliable hunger and fullness cues, or sometimes none at all. Typically, this is a result of consistently denying these signals throughout the course of the disorder as well as problematic low energy availability. Early satiety (a.k.a. false fullness) brought on by slowed digestion, extreme hunger, prolonged periods of time with no nutrition, and anxiety, help us to understand why we also can’t trust our fullness at this point.

            And it’s not just people with active eating disorders who will have difficulty relying on interoceptive cues. Dysregulated hunger and fullness cues are also likely if you have been on a diet, lost weight in the last couple of years, or if you have had a history of disordered eating. Keep in mind that interoceptive awareness can also be more complicated for folks who are neurodivergent, and for those who take certain medications, such as stimulants, which can greatly impact appetite. Stress, illness, depression, and pain, can also make it difficult to mindfully attune to our bodies’ internal cues.

            For anyone with dysregulated interoceptive cues, regular eating in the absence of hunger is essential to being properly nourished and healing from the trauma of deprivation! Hence, why meal plans and regular, consistent eating (three meals and two to three snacks per day) are such a common and necessary part of the recovery process.

            So, the next time you notice one of the potential signs and symptoms of hunger, and you are tempted to ignore it, consider trusting your gut. Try eating a hearty meal or snack and see if the feeling resolves. If so, this is likely a sign of hunger, even if you don’t think you “should” be hungry. And remember, honoring your hunger is a health promoting behavior, no matter what size body you reside in.