Hunger. That rumble in your belly, raw ache, and dip in energy levels that reminds you it's time to fuel up. Physiologically, hunger is an important and protective mechanism, caused by a cascade of hormones that both prepare the body for digestion and signal the brain to get you motivated to seek food. Hunger can feel unpleasant precisely because it needs to be remedied.
But how often do you really feel hungry? Many diet dictums tell us to "eat every three hours" and strong associations that seem to originate in childhood align food with activities, rituals, and even emotions. The physiological drive to eat, get hungry, and then eat again is controlled by both the "hunger hormone" ghrelin and the "satiety hormone" leptin. But this simple cycle is complicated by our food associations. The key to weight loss and management is returning to our basic need for food and stripping away these unnecessary properties we often unconsciously attribute to food. Think it sounds too simplistic? Ask yourself what stops you from losing weight:
Cravings? These are the body's physiological response to unbalanced blood sugars. Blood sugar stabilizes when we follow the body’s natural cues to eat or not to eat and cravings are eliminated.
Temptation? Foods we deem "bad" for us are often associated with particular times of the day or activities. We can come to see these as rewards. What if you took that power away from food and ate when you were hungry and stopped when you were full? This new perspective might even mean a slice of birthday cake is part of your healthy lifestyle.
Emotional eating? We tangle food up with the many reasons we feel stressed out and overwhelmed. So what if you found a new and more positive outlet for stress and overwhelm? What if you dealt with the core issues cutting away at your quality of life and let food simply be food again?
Hormones? A scale that won’t budge can often be attributed to an imbalance in the body. Returning to states of hunger can help to balance and reset hormones.
If these sound familiar, I hear you. Many of these frustrating weight-loss obstacles are tied to different types of hunger and are keeping you from your ideal weight. Here are three types of hunger that I've identified, how to distinguish between them, and what to do about each:
1. Heart hunger.
Heart hunger—or emotional eating—is triggered by feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion. Emotional eating is best understood as the attempt to access positive feelings through eating. So ask yourself: Is this food I'm about to eat a reward?
What to do instead: Acknowledge times that you are eating to soothe or silence emotions and find positive outlets instead. Exercise is a great way to increase feel-good hormones. If you are deep into emotional eating, seek the help of a counselor so together you can untangle this unhealthy association and deal with the real issues at the heart of this pattern.
2. Head hunger.
This happens to the scheduled eater and the clock is the trigger. Many of us have been taught to eat every three hours or to never skip breakfast and this has stripped away our reliance on our body’s own natural hunger cues.
What to do instead: Start by allowing yourself to experience the physiological symptoms of hunger. Delay that morning snack until you feel the urge to eat. Focus on choosing hearty meal options, like nutrient-dense foods high in protein and healthy fat, as these foods allow many people to go without eating between meals. Let go of diet "rules" and focus on what your body needs instead.
3. Habit hunger.
This is a kind of mindless eating where you have paired food consumption with a particular activity for so long, it's less a choice and more a repeated action. Eating in front of the television is a classic example.
What to do instead: You can break the association completely: Stop eating in front of the television at night. Or you can crowd this bad habit out with a new healthier habit or replacement. Try taking away the chips and candy, and replace them with carrot sticks or another favorite vegetable instead or try stretching, sipping tea, or turning the TV off altogether. The key with habit hunger is to first recognize that you have made an unhealthy association and then consciously work to break the habit. Remember, habit formation takes time, so it stands to reason that breaking the habit will also require your commitment over the long haul.
I also suggest people begin to understand "hunger" cues by keeping a diary. Writing down what and why you are eating forces you to face the real reasons behind your consumption. You will notice, as you gather this data, that certain patterns emerge. Armed with this information, you can begin to break the code on your hunger and get back to your basic physiological need for food that includes feeling that rumble in your tummy as an amazing sign of how we can trust in our bodies to keep us healthy.