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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Fiorentino

Intuitive Eating Principle Two: Honor Your Hunger (The How)

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

This post in the seventh 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.


In my last post on the topic of “Honor Your Hunger” I reviewed why eating adequately and consistently is so important for health and wellbeing. I also discussed why you probably aren’t eating enough, even if you think of yourself as an overeater. If you need a refresher on that last post, the tl;dr is that diet culture has convinced us we should be eating less, leading to hunger silence and metabolic shifts that cause weight gain and disordered eating. And I know, I know it’s hard to believe me when I say you need to eat more. But if you’ve tried eating less, over and over again, only to find yourself feeling totally obsessed and miserable, why not give eating sufficiently a try?


Before we jump in, here’s 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.


As you’re working to tune into your hunger, you’ll need a consistent foundation to work from. If you skip breakfast on Monday, eat a late lunch Tuesday because you’re stuck in meetings, snack all afternoon on Wednesday instead of sitting down for a meal, and meet your friends for early apps and happy hour on Thursday, your body won’t know what the eff is going on! And hey, if this is your current meal pattern there’s seriously zero judgement. Most of us spend our days running from one obligation to the next. It’s easy to deprioritize meals when life has become so unsustainably hectic. But if you want to establish strong and reliable hunger cues, you’ll have to slow down and make regular meals a non-negotiable part of each day.


There’s no one “right” way to eat. No diet or meal plan that’s appropriate for everyone. But if you’re looking for a place to start, I recommend these general guidelines:


Eat breakfast every day.

Breakfast wakes up your metabolism and sends your body the message that food is plentiful. Ideally, try to eat within two hours of waking up. And make sure breakfast is sufficient to keep you satisfied for a few hours. This means a piece of fruit or granola bar probably won’t cut it. Umph up your breakfast by adding nuts or nut butter, dairy (the more fat the better), eggs, or meat. One caveat here: if you really aren’t hungry for breakfast you might start with something small, like fruit or a piece of toast. In the short term these foods are a good option to help get your body used to a morning meal.


Include a source of carbs, protein, and fat at each meal and snack.

I don’t care how many grams of each, just as long as there’s some amount of carbs, protein, and fat at each meal, your macronutrients will likely balance out over the day. Plus, getting carbs, protein, and fat at every meal and snack will help keep you fuller, longer, and may help curb carbs cravings later in the day. Early in your intuitive eating journey, you’ll probably notice a lot of judgy food thoughts, “I really should choose a meal with more vegetables.” Or “Am I seriously gonna have cheese and crackers as a snack?” As much as possible, try to interrupt these thoughts by reminding yourself that your only goal right now is to lay the foundation that you’ll build your intuitive eating on.

Aim to eat every three to five hours.

Think about your typical mealtimes over the last few weeks. Do you find yourself grazing during the day without any substantial break between snacks? Or are there loooong stretches without any food? In either case these eating patterns will disrupt your hunger cues. For the grazers, your body isn’t moving through fed and fasted cycles appropriately. So instead of feeling hungry, full, neutral, then hungry again, you may always feel sorta neutral (and not especially satisfied). For the accidental intermittent fasters, you’re almost certainly missing your hunger cues, leading to hunger silence.


Snack with intention:

  • Satisfying snacks are your friend! Snacks are essential in ensuring you’re getting nourishment every three to five hours. Unfortunately, finding the Goldilocks “just right” sized snack can take some experimenting. Nope, a 100-calorie snack pack probably won’t cut it. Think about snacks as mini-meals. “Adult Lunchables” as I call them (you know what I mean, those snack packs with some variation of cheese, crackers, dried fruit, nuts, etc), a PB&J sandwich, a yogurt parfait – certainly there are many more options, but any snack that contains carbs, protein, and fat and that’s substantial enough to be fully satisfying will work.

  • Snacks are not meals! Begin noticing the difference between snack-hungry and meal-hungry. If it’s the late afternoon and you’re hungry for dinner but you grab a snack instead, you’ll probably end up eating a meal’s worth of snack food. This is an all-too-common frustration for the accidental intermittent fasters out there. Folks get home from work, grab the pretzels, and three-quarters of the bag later feel totally miserable and out of control. If you need a meal, eat a meal. And if you notice that you’re consistently meal hungry at an inopportune time, like 10:30am or 4:00pm, when meals might not be available, that’s a sign you need to eat more at earlier meals, or incorporate a snack sooner in your day.

Now before I go on, I gotta say that although these foundational recommendations may seem straightforward, they can be challenging to implement. Give yourself lots of compassion as you work on regular meals times and adequate intake, you probably won’t nail it right away, that’s normal.


 

Once you’ve established some consistency in your intake, it’s time to tune in to your hunger cues. To do this, pause for a few moments before meals to notice how your body is feeling. Start by checking in with your stomach. What do you feel? Then notice any head feelings, maybe a headache or foggy feeling. And observe your mood and thoughts. Are you irritable? Are you thinking about food? Review some of the common ways people experience hunger and check off those that feel familiar to you.


Stomach:

a variety of sensations including numbing, gurgling, gnawing, or emptiness. While this is a common way of experiencing hunger, people experiencing hunger silence may not feel hunger in their stomachs.


Throat and esophagus:

Dull ache, gnawing.


Head:

Cloudy thinking, light-headedness, headaches, difficulty focusing and concentrating. Experiencing more thoughts of food or thinking, “I’m hungry” without being able to identify bodily signs of hunger.


Mood:

Irritability or crankiness. Perhaps you feel “frayed” as if you must work harder to keep your emotions in check though you don’t present as irritable to the outside world.


Energy:

Waning, perhaps even to the point of sleepiness. There can be a dullness and even apathy toward doing anything.


Numbness:

Overall lethargy.


Getting to Know Your Hunger

Next, you’ll begin filling in the hunger scale to add nuance to your hunger cues.

Extreme hunger, or a zero on the scale, is intensely unpleasant. You may feel anxious, angry, or lightheaded. You may even feel nauseated (paradoxical, I know, it’s because your digestion has slowed down and your GI tract is fussy). At a five, you’ll feel neutral, neither hungry nor full. It’s your task to fill in one through four. Start by exploring what hunger levels two and three feel like, somewhere between ravenously hungry and neutral. Are they pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant? (Come to think of it, are there any hunger levels or sensations you think of as pleasant?) What feels different about hunger level three compared to zero or five? Once you’ve got a sense of how the mid-levels feel, you can start exploring levels one and four. It may take you several days or weeks to fill in your scale, and you may adjust your levels and hunger cues over time.


The Hunger Scale

Two notes on the hunger scale:

  • Please be patient with yourself! This tool is not some perfectly objective measure of your hunger levels . . . there’s no right answer here! If you’re checking in at least once a day and observing your hunger, you’re rebuilding connection with your body, and that’s the whole goal.

  • Please actually do this! Don’t just read this blog post or print out the scale. Actually do the hunger check ins every day. Notice how hunger feels in your body. Look for cues you may have missed or ignored in the past. Too often, we think of intuitive eating as some kind of cognitive jujitsu. But intuitive eating happens when we check in with our bodies, not our brains.


Oh yeah, and of course, I also highly recommend The Intuitive Eating Workbook for additional worksheets and tools to kelp you tune in to your hunger!

The Intuitive Eating Workbook

Feeling and honoring your hunger is one of the most critical components of intuitive eating. But, just to clarify, that doesn’t mean there’s a perfect hunger level at which you should always eat! Aim to eat around a hunger level two or three, knowing you’ll probably miss this goal sometimes. Notice if your hunger is regularly at a one or zero and if this urgent hunger contributes to backlash or binge eating. And be kind to your body. If she asks for food, please, feed her.


With compassion,

Stephanie

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