What actually is hunger?
Hunger is simply the way our body feels at certain points in a day, but it can mean different things for different people... For some, hunger is a problem that needs solving, something that interrupts their day and is seen as a reminder that they need to eat. This can be hard for some; if you are busy at that moment, or if you are on a restrictive diet, this hunger may not be welcome with open arms. Despite a majority of people believing hunger to only be a case of when they need food and their stomach is empty, there are actually many types of hunger. In this article I will discuss six of the eight types of hunger: emotional hunger, cellular hunger, physical hunger, taste hunger, nose hunger and eye hunger.
We all know the phrase ‘eating your feelings’. Emotional eating is when people eat based on their emotions. You often see this portrayed in cheesy chick flicks where a girl is sat on the sofa eating a tub of ice cream after being dumped, or Bridget Jones eating because she feels lonely. We don’t just have to experience negative emotions to eat emotionally. Sometimes we eat in celebration, for example eating cake to celebrate a birthday. There is nothing wrong with emotional eating. In fact it can be seen as a form of self-care. Recognising that emotional eating is perfectly normal, so we shouldn’t feel guilty for it is so important as the guilt associated can make people feel worse than they did before.
When emotional eating becomes less helpful is when we only use this as a response to our problems, because we need other self-care strategies too. Although in most cases emotional eating won’t truly solve the problem, eating can give you a distraction or gives you the feeling that the problem is solved, so it is definitely a valid coping strategy.
So what can we do instead? Firstly, you need to recognise that emotional eating is normal and more than anything be kind to yourself about it! I like to use the phrase “be a friend to yourself”. What I mean by this is speak to yourselves how you would speak to a friend or family member if they came to you. Would you say they were a failure or any of the harsh things you might say to yourself? Of course not, so why should you say that horrible stuff to yourself? Also, make sure that you aren’t confusing emotional eating with physical hunger.
To determine if “emotional eating” is actually a response to physical hunger, ask yourself, “are you truly eating enough? Are you eating three meals a day with snacks?” If you aren’t then it could be that you’re viewing the biological urge to eat as “overeating” or emotional eating, when really… It’s just eating. Once you have eliminated physical hunger from this mix then you can identify what emotion you are really feeling. Are you feeling lonely? Sad? Or angry? Once you have identified this emotion you can decide the best way to deal with it. For example, if you decided it was because you were lonely then maybe you could arrange to meet a friend, or if that’s not possible as I am writing this is in lockdown, maybe you could try a zoom call.
Remember even after you’ve determined what emotion you’re feeling, you can still use food to cope. Side note: Sometimes feelings and emotions are too much to cope with, and we don’t have the mental space to unpack them or try to solve them. If that’s you, I would recommend seeking out a therapist who can help you safely unpack underlying feelings or causes of difficult-to-cope-with feelings. Adding in self-care practices such as yoga, meditation, reading can be great additions to your emotional coping toolkit. For me, I like lighting a candle and getting in my comfies.
This type of hunger is often the consequence of restriction. If you cut out a certain food group or type of food from your diet you will likely obsess over it and be more hungry for it. Take this as an example if I tell you not to think about paper, you are going to think about paper. Not only does the desire to eat more occur when cutting out a specific food, but also if you try and reduce your intake altogether. Our bodies aren’t made to be starved so naturally our bodies will seek out food, so our evolutionary instincts will override this desire to cut-out food. One way our body does this is through the release of hunger hormones. Ghrelin is the hungry hormone in our body, which tells our brain we are hungry when our stomach is empty. When there is a depletion of carbs in the body, our body will struggle to suppress this hunger hormone, resulting in you being more hungry. This isn’t something to try and stop. It’s our body doing its job just like when our immune system fights off infections. Not only will we be hungry, but restrictive diets are associated with depression (Madigan et al. 2018). Sound good? I didn’t think so.
So what can you do here? How can we unlearn these behaviours? Listen to your body! By this I mean eat like a baby. I don’t mean strap yourself in a high-chair and cover yourself in more food than you eat. I mean eat like a baby, where you pick and choose what you want to eat and when you are full you are able to recognise this and not want more food. This is what babies do, day in day out. They eat the food they see and if you try and coarse them into eating more they will quite often turn their face away from you.
It can be harder to eat like this as an adult because we have been conditioned with so many eating rules: “eat everything on your plate”, “don’t eat too much ‘bad’ food” and “always eat lots of ‘good’ food”. It is hard to suddenly ignore the things you have been brought up to know, but how others treated food in your upbringing is often (not always) a reason people have a poor relationship to food.
When we think of hunger we often think of stomach grumbles and this is what it means to be hungry. However, people do not always eat when they are physically hungry. Many people around the world will have set times for when they eat meals, for example they may have a lunch break at work, so their lunch break may dictate when they eat lunch rather than when they are actually hungry. For some people with frequent access to food , it can be hard to listen to our hunger cues. This isn’t to say we should only eat if we have a grumbling stomach. In fact we should eat before it gets to this stage.
Physical hunger isn’t just grumbling stomachs either; it can be light-headedness, salivating at the sight of a food, being irritable (hangry) or thinking about food. It is hard to unlearn this but by eating mindfully you can become more in tune with your hunger levels and really know when you are hungry. A simple way you can start your journey to mindful eating is whenever you feel that you are hungry. Ask yourself, would you eat a food that you don’t really like? If no then you’re not really hungry are you? If you only want one specific food then it’s a craving and not real hunger.
I’m sure you have noticed if you go to Lidl or Aldi, you will notice the bakery is positioned as you walk through the door so you have no choice but to smell that freshly baked bread. These stores know this and cheekly pray that we will buy their products because of it. If you find that you are often hungry for smells then you need to satisfy your hunger for smells by smelling your food before each meal. This is the same for eye hunger too. By spending time appreciating food with your senses it allows us to satisfy our sensory hunger.
Have you ever eaten dinner and been really full, but still want dessert? Well you’re not alone. This is common amongst many people, and there is a reason why. Taste hunger. Taste hunger is when you aren’t necessarily physically hungry but want to eat a specific taste.
By paying attention to our food when we are eating it, we can satisfy taste hunger. If we are distracted eating we are not paying attention to what we are eating so our taste still craves satisfaction. If we focus on the eating experience we allow the brain to focus on all the sensations that come with the meal.
When food looks good! And it makes you want to eat it. Think stacks of pancakes with maple syrup, huge milkshakes, platters of fresh fruit… There’s nothing wrong with eye hunger, but it might lead you to feel overwhelmed around food as you might feel like you can’t control yourself. Instead of beating yourself up, remind yourself that food photography's job is to make food look good, and even if you’re not physically hungry, it’s natural to still want to eat food that looks good. Instead, ask yourself if you’re physically hungry. That way, you can decide for yourself if you want to eat or not. Remember it’s totally cool to eat when you’re not physically hungry.
If you want to know more about how to stop distracted eating or how to eat mindfully, then seek professional advice. You can book or contact Shannon here.
Madigan, C.D., Pavey, T., Daley, A.J., Jolly, K. and Brown, W.J., 2018. Is weight cycling associated with adverse health outcomes? A cohort study. Preventive medicine, 108, pp.47-52.
Big thanks to Beth Tripp @nutri_beth for contributing this article.