How to Reconnect to Your Body and Honor Your Hunger
By: Megan Perez, dietitian at Nourishing Minds Nutrition
My previous blog post focused on the first principle of Intuitive Eating: rejecting the diet mentality. Once you have decided that attempting diet after diet is no longer serving you (this alone is a huge feat, so congratulate yourself!), then what do you do? While, “eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full,” seems so simple, I understand that it is quite the opposite for most people. For most people, this can be not only challenging, but also frustrating, scary, and very intimidating. Many of my clients cannot remember a time when they were not dieting or following a set of food rules, so they do not even know where to start! What I see most often is that people are terrified they will never stop eating once they begin, or they have lost all hunger cues completely. I have had clients, friends, family members, and co-workers all tell me that they could go an entire day without eating, because they are just not hungry. This is NOT what we want. A vital step in becoming an intuitive eater is learning to honor your hunger. But how is this possible when you don’t feel hungry?
Let’s first address why we have lost our appetite and why we cannot always eat according to our hunger. In other words, why are we so disconnected to our body?
There was once a time when we were all intuitive eaters. This was back when we were children, before we had ever heard the word “diet”. One reason for losing our hunger signals stems from dieting. After consistently ignoring those subtle feelings of hunger over and over, they fade away. Another reason we may have become disconnected is because of long-term medication or substance use. Certain medications and substances, such as drugs and alcohol, may suppress our feelings of hunger until they become silent. A final reason I will discuss is emotions such as anxiety, nervousness, and living in a constant state of stress. When our bodies are under stress, we enter into the flight or fight response. This often causes our hunger cues and digestion to decrease in order to save our energy to “fight” off the harm coming our way. In all of the above circumstances, you may only “hear” hunger cues in extreme, ravenous states, which leave us feeling out of control around food.
When we have no internal hunger cues, we either do not eat, or we eat according to our own thoughts and judgments around food (what we or society deem as “good” or “bad”). At the end of the day, this strategy for eating or managing our weight does not end well. It can cause an obsession around these food rules, which could lead to an eating disorder. We could also swing to the opposite end of the pendulum and enter the restrict – binge cycle.
I want you to know that I understand how scary it is to lose trust with your body and fear what could happen if you let go of control. I promise that you can become a team with your body.
So how do you start re-building that connection again and honoring your biological hunger? The first step is to ensure that you are eating enough. A starved body will not provide you with accurate signals of hunger or fullness. This may require seeking out an eating disorder treatment center for help, or it may require starting with eating 3 meals and 2 snacks daily. Once dieting and deprivation have been halted, and you are consistently feeding your body, you then will need to slow down and get quiet. The key to honoring your hunger is to listen for it.
Hunger looks and sounds different for everyone, so it is your job to become a detective and identify what sensations appear during hunger for you. I encourage you to start listening about 1 or 2 hours after a meal or snack. If you are working or feeling anxious, place your hand on your belly and take a couple of deep breaths to bring attention to your body. Hunger may begin as growling noises coming from your stomach, light-headedness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, or headaches. For some, they may start having thoughts about their next meal. At 3 or 4 hours after a meal, check in with yourself. Try asking yourself how hungry you are on a scale of 0-10 (See the Hunger Discovery Scale in Intuitive Eating). The most important thing you can do when you notice hunger is to not judge it. My favorite quote from Intuitive Eating is: “Hunger is a normal, welcomed body signal that should be embraced. It’s a sign that you are getting back in touch with your body’s needs.”
I fully acknowledge that most of us have busy lives! We have jobs or school or families that constantly consume our thoughts. The more we practice bringing our attention back to our bodies, the greater the connection we will feel to our bodies. This will result in building a greater trust and also will allow us to tune in much easier to the many different signals our body may send. I personally find that the more present I am throughout the day, the better I can take care of myself. Sometimes it’s noticing my energy is getting low and it’s time to eat something, or other times it’s realizing my breath has become shallow, my heart has begun racing, and I could benefit from some deep breaths to calm me down and bring me back to the current moment. This allows me to get back in touch with what my body needs.
I have so much compassion for you for doing this difficult work, and I truly believe in the resilience of your body. Taking these steps to reconnect to your body will help you begin to honor your hunger. Just remember, no matter how broken or damaged you may feel, your body will always bounce back, as long as you believe in yourself.