Are you afraid that listening to your hunger signals will lead to binges or out-of-control eating?
Are you trying to eat intuitively but struggling with understanding what hunger feels like?
You’re not alone. Hunger can feel confusing and overwhelming, especially if you’ve struggled with yo-yo dieting or disordered eating in the past.
In this blog post, I’ll break down the different types of hunger so you can better understand what’s going on in your body. Armed with this information, you’ll be able to reconnect with your body’s hunger signals and be more confident responding to them.
Here we go!
What Types Of Hunger Are There?
In Intuitive Eating, there are 4 different types of hunger:
- Physical hunger
- Taste hunger
- Emotional hunger
- Practical hunger
Each category of hunger has its own corresponding hunger cues (or lack thereof). Some are obvious, like a growling belly or an empty feeling in your gut, but others are more subtle. Headaches, losing focus, irritability and shaking can also be your brain’s way of saying, “it’s time to eat!” without being too obvious about it.
Let’s go into more detail on hunger and its many signals.
The 4 Types of Hunger in Intuitive Eating
Our biological hunger is a delicate dance between the brain, the digestive system, the blood stream, gut microbes and other organs that send messages back and forth to let us know if we have enough energy to fuel the body. When we’re low on what’s needed to create energy, our brain calls out for food.
Common signs of physical hunger include:
- A gnawing in your stomach
- Thoughts of food
- Losing focus or concentration
- Feeling tired, lacking energy
- Shaking or trembling
- Stomach pain
- Feeling “hangry” or irritable
Should I Respond To Physical Hunger?
Responding to physical hunger not only cures the pains, shakes, and headaches associated with hunger, but it can be good for our health. Several studies have shown that recognizing and responding to initial hunger cues can improve insulin sensitivity and other cardiovascular markers.
Physical Hunger Exercise:
Try responding to your not-so-obvious hunger cues. If it’s been more than a couple hours since your last meal and you notice yourself thinking about food, losing focus, or a headache coming on, try seeing what a balanced snack (carbs + protein perhaps) does for you.
If those sensations and thoughts resolve, you were probably hungry. Try to catch these subtle hunger cues before hunger becomes too extreme. It’s when we let hunger get bigger and more urgent that it can lead us to loss-of-control eating.
If you’ve ever walked by a bakery and been overcome with a hankering for freshly baked rolls or baguettes, you’re intimately familiar with taste hunger.
Going back for seconds even though you’re probably just about full or ordering dessert because the creme brulee looks amazing at the table next to yours – that’s all taste hunger.
Should I Respond To Taste Hunger?
There’s nothing wrong with responding to taste hunger signals. In fact, if you have been restricting foods that taste really satisfying, chances are your taste hunger signals are really loud. That might make you uncomfortable responding to taste hunger for fear of losing control around these foods.
But freely allowing foods that taste great in your diet helps remove their power over you. Knowing they will always be available any time you want them lets your brain relax. In turn, you end up craving them less often.
Taste Hunger Exercise:
This exercise can seem scary for some folks, but I’ve seen it lead to so many “ah-ha!” moments with clients. If you need support from a registered dietitian to address fear foods, please contact me.
Choose a food that feels “off limits” but is extremely satisfying to you. Allow yourself to have this food every day for a week. Yep, unconditional access to as much as you want as often as you want it.
When you eat this food, eat it mindfully, slowly, bite by delicious bite. With no distractions like your phone or tv – just you and this satisfying food. Truly taste this food, and enjoy its aroma and texture. Notice how it feels in your mouth, throat and stomach. Pay attention to how it feels emotionally to eat this food and savor every bite.
Eat until you feel truly satisfied.
Take note of how you feel before, during and after eating this food. You could even journal about these experiences and see how they change over the week. What do you notice on days 4, 5, 6, and 7?
Most of us at one time or another have eaten to make ourselves feel better – less lonely, less bored, less angry or less stressed. Eating gives us a quick shot of feel-good dopamine in the brain, so it’s no wonder we may come to rely on eating as a way to soothe our emotions.
Learning to differentiate between actual hunger and emotional need is key. Emotional eating and extreme hunger from ignoring initial hunger cues can feel very similar.
Getting in touch with physical hunger cues can actually help you prevent emotional or stress eating. After all, denying your body energy when it really needs it can negatively affect your mental attitude and mood, while magnifying anxiety and increasing stress.
Should I Respond To Emotional Hunger?
Having more than one way to cope with difficult feelings is also important. Getting emotional support from a friend or therapist, moving your body, practicing mindfulness, and other stress-relieving techniques are helpful. And, sometimes, eating is the right choice, as long as it is not your only strategy to cope with emotional needs.
Emotional Hunger Exercise:
When you find yourself eating at a time when you’re also experiencing strong emotions, see if you can pause for a moment. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What triggered me to start eating?
- What am I feeling? Is there unmet emotional need driving my eating?
- Am I actually hungry?
- Is there a better way to nurture myself right now?
- What do I really need at this moment?
- What would help me feel better?
- What is the most compassionate response I can give myself right now?
Building a list of self-care strategies can be quite helpful when addressing emotional eating. This might include getting enough sleep, physical movement, social connection with people or pets, creative pursuits and the like.
One of my clients had the challenge of never feeling hungry for breakfast before work. By late morning, she found herself desperate for food but not able to take a meal break until noon. So, she grabbed whatever was most convenient and appealing…and she often found herself staring at the bottom of a full size bag of tortilla chips by lunchtime.
She had mindlessly munched through projects and Zoom meetings, unaware of the connection between not eating breakfast and her desperate hunger for something – anything – to give her energy fast.
Practical hunger is eating when your schedule allows you to eat (even in the absence of hunger) because there won’t be another opportunity to eat for a long period of time.
Should I Respond To Practical Hunger?
Practical eating can prevent feeling “hangry” later or making eating choices out of primal hunger rather than sound thinking later in the day. Practical eating can lead to better nutrition overall and prevent binge episodes.
Practical Hunger Exercise:
The next time you are tempted to skip a meal because you’re not hungry at the moment or have coffee instead of breakfast, try having a balanced meal instead. Include carbs (starchy foods), protein and fat. Then, at the end of the day, answer these questions:
- What was your energy level like through the hours after eating for practical hunger?
- How is your concentration and focus at work/school before the next meal?
- What was your mood like in the hours after you ate compared to days when you skip a meal?
You may find some interesting revelations from this exercise. If so, let me know about them!
Hunger is one of the most basic human instincts, and it’s something we all have to deal with on a daily basis. Building awareness of the types of hunger in your body is the first step. Learning how to listen to your hunger cues and respond accordingly can be difficult, but it’s worth it in the end.
If you want help understanding the types of hunger or reconnecting to your hunger cues, set up a free consultation call with me. I would be more than happy to walk you through the process and answer any questions you may have about intuitive eating. Thanks for reading!
Hello there! I’m Britt, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. I can help you find freedom from life-long dieting, disordered eating and eating disorders. When I’m not writing about ditching diet culture, joyful movement or improving body image, you can find me hiking in Vermont’s Green Mountains, eating pizza, making modern quilts or sipping a hot cup of tea. Let’s connect!