Intuitive Eating Principle Two: Honor Your Hunger (The Why)
Updated: Aug 14
This post in the sixth in a series on the topic of intuitive eating. Where Intuitive Eating is capitalized and italicized, it refers to the text Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Where intuitive eating is in plain text, it refers to a more generalized non-diet nutrition framework or style of eating.
There is so much to write on the topic of hunger that, less than a sentence in, I already know this will be a two-part post. Honor Your Hunger is the Intuitive Eating principle I find is most critically important for those starting out on their journey to food freedom. Although “eat when you’re hungry” may seem like a simple objective, allowing yourself to eat consistently and adequately in a food climate that encourages constant restraint and deprivation is really quite revolutionary. In today’s post I’ll focus on why you probably aren’t eating sufficiently, even if you think you’re an overeater. And coming soon, I’ll review the how of honoring your hunger, which is especially important for anyone who has trouble recognizing their hunger cues, a common side-effect of dieting.
But before I go on, a quick content note that today’s post mentions specific calorie restricted diets and calorie ranges. And my standard disclaimer: This post is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for individualized medical or mental health care. It does not constitute a patient-provider relationship. The content of this post might not feel useful to you right now – please take the information that serves you and leave the rest.
We’ve already discussed how diet backlash can lead to overeating and food fixation. And while you may think of a diet as a meal plan that’s followed across several weeks or months, the reality is that every day you’re undernourished, anytime you miss or ignore your hunger cues, your body is getting the message that food is scarce.
This is so important, I’m gonna say again: If you’re hungry but you don’t eat, your body perceives that you are at risk of starvation.
Your body will rapidly implement psychological, hormonal, and metabolic protections against starvation.
This means intrusive food thoughts and increased satisfaction from food. Yup, food literally tastes better when you’re starving. The hungrier you are, the more your thoughts are fixated on food, the more appealing food becomes.
It means craving calorically dense and rapidly absorbing foods. Why are you always reaching for cookies instead of a salad? Your body needs energy, and it needs it now. Cookies will provide that energy way more efficiently than a salad.
It means a sluggish metabolism. I can’t stress this enough, when you deny your body food, your metabolism adjusts to protect you from losing weight (aka starving). Anyone citing the diet troupe “calories in calories out” simply doesn’t understand the complexity of human metabolism.
As always, I encourage you to check out the full Intuitive Eating text for more on how persistent hunger impacts your physiology:
Now before you say, “but Stephanie, I’m already eating too much” let me just reassure you, no, you probably aren’t. Ok fine, I don’t know you, I don’t know what you ate yesterday. But I do know that in all my years of nutrition counseling, across hundreds of clients, I’ve never met a single person who was simply eating too much in the absence of restriction. Sure, people overeat, eat beyond comfortable fullness, or binge eat, but this is always in response to restriction.
So let’s explore some reasons why it may feel like you’re eating too much even if you aren't.
Compensatory Biological Response:
Imagine you’re having a breath-holding contest with a friend. (IDK why you’d do this, but whatever, just play along.) You both take a big gulp of air and hold hold hold for as long as you can. Finally, your friend gives in and gasps for air, quickly followed by your own ultra-dramatic inhale. Taking a deep breath after being deprived of air is a compensatory biological response. No matter how chill you try to be about your inhale, it’s almost impossible to control. This is what’s happening for folks who are undernourished, overly hungry, chronically dieting – whatever you want to call it. If you’ve been hungry all day, you’re gonna experience the compensatory biological response that overrides fullness cues and drives you to keep eating even once you feel full. For many people, this will feel like eating too much, but it’s actually just your body balancing out after being hungry all day.
Unrealistic Portion Sizes:
How many of us have been influenced by the 1200 calorie diet, 100 calorie snack packs, 200 calorie “meal replacement” shakes, and 350 calorie Lean Cuisines? These very low-calorie diets and diet foods have been staples for at least 50 years. And, even when we recognize that crash diets are unsustainable, these way-too-low calorie “goals” get stuck in our heads as the right amount to eat. But here’s the thing: 1200 calories isn’t enough food for a toddler or a large breed puppy. A 1200 calorie diet certainly won’t adequately fuel an adult human and may not even be enough to meet the energy needs of your vital organs – your heart, lungs, brain, liver, and muscle tissue. Now I’m not a fan of calorie counting. Calorie needs are different for everyone and vary from day to day. And calorie counting can become real disordered real fast. But if you’re looking for a soft goal, that 2000 calorie per day recommendation from the USDA is a good place to start. That means that if you’ve been eating “way too much” on your 1200 calorie diet, you’re probably eating about the right amount.
Denying Fullness or Satisfaction:
We’ve all tried that cringy mindful eating approach where you chew for however many bites and stop eating the second you aren’t hungry anymore. But the thing is, we aren’t meant to stop eating when we’re no longer hungry, we’re meant to stop eating when we’re full! Imagine getting five hours of sleep in a night. Sure, you may not feel tired when you wake up, but you won’t feel well rested either. And if you deprive yourself of a full night’s sleep for days or weeks on end, you’re bound to crash eventually. Eating to neutrality (the absence of hunger or fullness) is like getting the bare minimum amount of sleep each night. It won’t be enough to sustain you in the long term. So, if you’ve been eating to neutrality only to find yourself hungry and snacking again a few hours later, that’s evidence that you aren’t eating enough, not that you’re eating too much.
Meal Skipping or Delay:
So many of my clients find themselves skipping meals, delaying mealtimes, or withholding food (“I’ll just send one more email, then I’ll eat . . . ” Cut to ten emails later.) This is especially common at breakfast and lunch. Given our hectic schedules and fast paced work environments, it’s easy to deprioritize meals. We may grab a snack from the breakroom if there isn’t time for lunch. We might forget to eat altogether on the most stressful days. But of course, this daytime meal inadequacy leads to a compensatory overeating response in the evening. And unfortunately, this can often trigger a daily restrict/backlash cycle. If your evening eating feels out of control, you may be tempted to restrict on the following day. “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I ate that pint of ice cream last night, I’d better skip lunch today.” Then more compensatory evening eating, more daytime restriction, and more conviction that you’re eating too much when all the while your poor body just wants lunch!
Have you ever noticed how, if you’re hungry and you ignore it, it goes away? Most folks who’ve dieted or engaged in disordered eating have figured out they don’t feel as hungry if they skip breakfast, that they can power through their hunger, or that they can trick their bodies by eating low calorie snacks, chewing gum, or drinking water. Our bodies don’t send unlimited hunger cues. If your stomach grumbles and you don’t respond, your body assumes there must not be food around, your metabolism adjusts, and your hunger cues diminish. Over time this becomes hunger silence – hunger cues become difficult or impossible to recognize. Hunger silence reenforces the, “I’m eating too much” narrative for anyone who is trying to practice eating only when hungry. But if your hunger cues are muddled, that’s a sign you’ve been undereating. Reestablishing hunger cues takes consistent, adequate intake (more on hunger cues in the next post). I know, I know – diet culture tells you you’re not hungry because you’re eating too much. But trust me, more restriction isn’t the answer!
If you’ve stuck with me this far but you’re still skeptical, that’s ok. Many of my clients are absolutely convinced they’re overeating when we start our work together. But with time and increased body trust, that narrative
begins to shit. Consider if it’s possible that one or more of the above scenarios might apply to your eating? Is it possible you’re underestimating your caloric needs? Is it possible you’re experiencing hunger silence? If yes, then it’s also possible that, despite what every diet and doctor and wellness guru has told you, you may not be eating enough. And honoring your hunger is the first step in changing that.