Imagine twirling in endless circles on a merry-go-round that has lost all control and seems to never stop spinning. The dizzying blur is exactly how it feels for many people struggling to control their eating.
Deciding what, when, and how much to eat is a natural requirement for adulthood, but that doesn’t make it easy. You’re doing so well on your diet only to give in to one small temptation. Suddenly, it seems impossible to get your hunger under control. You’re waiting through drive-thru windows on the way home from work, or buying a whole box of cookies at the supermarket. You eventually get back on track, but there’s always that next temptation just around the corner.
What makes this dizzying merry-go-round even more difficult is the fact that many adults have lost touch with their natural hunger cues. Those are the signals that your body sends to alert you when to eat. Unfortunately, cravings are different from hunger cues. Food can feel so enjoyable that the brain releases chemical rewards that lead to strong urges to eat more and more.
If you want to gain control of your eating and improve your health, it’s essential to reconnect with your hunger cues. That allows you to eat for the right reason: true hunger.
Are You Really Hungry? The Role of Hunger Cues
True hunger occurs when your body needs an inflow of nourishment to function. You have fully utilized the calories already consumed and need more to maintain energy levels, repair cells, and perform all of those automatic bodily processes that make life possible. That’s when you’re in the middle of a busy day but need a healthy snack to maintain focus and keep your energy high.
Newborns feel their natural hunger cues and send signals to caregivers that prompt the delivery of nourishing food. By the time those babies reach adulthood, they will have a completely different idea of what qualifies as a prompt to eat. They will learn that food is intensely pleasurable and can help ease the stress of daily life.
True Hunger vs. Emotional Hunger
Eating has become an automatic or emotional process for most of us. Those natural hunger cues are still there, but most of us rarely feel them because we’re eating without the presence of true hunger. We simply don’t allow our bodies to feel hungry enough to trigger the alarm that says, “Eat now!”
A lot of what we think of as hunger today is really stress, anxiety, depression, fear, or even joy and excitement. Every emotion is a reason to eat, either out of celebration or desperation to numb the discomfort.
Learning to eat in response to true hunger is your escape from the merry-go-round. It starts with understanding what your hunger cues are, and the next step is to resist eating long enough to experience and recognize them.
Identifying Your Natural Hunger Cues
What does real hunger feel like? We already mentioned the need for a midday snack on a busy day, but it goes deeper than that. Many people experience genuine hunger for the first time in adulthood when they start intermittent fasting.
Going without food long enough for your body to send your hunger cues is the only way to experience them firsthand. What we can do is provide a quick list of what you may feel when your body truly does require nourishment:
- Reduced energy levels
- Stomach growls
- Reduced mental focus
You don’t have to wait until your hands are shaking and you have no energy to walk to the bathroom, let alone get in that daily walk. Recognizing mild hunger cues is often the first step. If you wait too long, there are some risks that we’ll discuss in just a moment.
It Feels Like Hunger – But It’s Not
Getting in touch with natural hunger cues is often difficult because it’s hard to determine what is a genuine cue. Our modern adult brains have learned to process so many emotions and circumstances as hunger, which really have nothing to do with food intake at all.
When you experience any of the following, think about what you may need other than food:
- Exhaustion – physical or mental
- Extreme emotions – anger, fear, anxiety, frustration, etc.
- Sudden cravings for specific foods – sweet, salty, Thai, pizza, etc.
Genuine hunger triggers the need for nourishment, while an emotional response is more likely to trigger a desire for a specific type of food. You may suddenly want nothing more than a greasy slice of pizza or a tub of ice cream. That’s different from simply feeling hungry and looking for a healthy meal option.
We could also add here that some recreational and medicinal supplements like CBD can trigger intense and even constant hunger sensations. There’s a whole science behind getting the munchies when in some altered mental states. Learning to decipher your natural hunger cues from those false hunger cues is essential if you want to improve or maintain your health.
The Danger of Missed or Ignored Hunger Cues
With that understanding of hunger cues, it’s time to discuss the danger of ignoring them or simply losing touch with them over the years. The biggest risk is that you’re more likely to overeat when you wait too long to nourish your body.
The hungrier you get, the faster you’re going to eat. The faster you eat, the less time you give your body to determine you’ve consumed enough and send chemical messages to stop eating. It generally takes about 20 minutes for your brain to realize your stomach is full. In that time, you can consume far too much food if you’re overly hungry.
You also aren’t in alignment with the needs of your body when you eat out of sync with your natural hunger cues. You stop providing what your body needs and start eating out of emotion or pure enjoyment. That’s okay at times, but making it the daily default leads to weight gain and a long list of health risks associated with being overweight and obese.
Strategies for Tapping Your Natural Hunger Cues
One of the most effective ways to get back in sync with your natural hunger cues is to stop making food consumption an automatic process. Start focusing on every bite of food you want to take, right down to the gum you chew and the small morsels you grab in passing throughout your busy day.
Stop and think. Am I genuinely hungry? Is there something else driving me to reach for this food? Is it just a thoughtless, automatic action, an emotional response, or genuine hunger?
Some experts suggest making it a habit only to consume food that requires some prep/cooking time, even if it’s something as simple as rice with diced meat or a toastie. Anything that’s slightly harder than reaching for something in the cupboard. Having to go out of your way to cook can often help you avoid feeding the facade.
In many cases, if you aren’t sure you’re experiencing genuine hunger, you probably aren’t. Take time to think about what you need instead of consuming food.