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How To Discern Between Hanger & Intuition, According To A Functional Medicine Expert

William Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C.
Functional Medicine Practitioner
By William Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C.
Functional Medicine Practitioner
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine practitioner with a certification in natural medicine and a doctor of chiropractic degree.
Image by Tatjana Zlatkovic / Stocksy
February 4, 2021

When was the last time you felt hungry? I'm not talking about the last time you experienced a craving or a blood sugar crash. When was the last time you felt truly hungry? When you could feel that your stomach was empty and you could hear it growling and gurgling, letting you know that it's time for a meal?

For most patients in my functional medicine telehealth clinic, it's been a while. After all, our lifestyles are designed for convenience and ease in a way that never leaves us far from a vending machine or a drive-through. Instead of going from full to hungry and back to full again, we fluctuate between being sort-of hungry, sort-of satisfied after eating, and always kind of craving sugar, carbs, and caffeine. Many of us also feel shaky or hangry if we go too long without a snack or meal.

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You may have heard the term intuitive eating, which refers to the concept of listening to and honoring your body's messages about what to eat. I even discuss a form of this in my new book Intuitive Fasting.

However, in my experience, when your body is out of balance, it can be very difficult to discern what you really do need to build vibrant wellness. Is it intuition or an insatiable craving? Is it intuition or hormone imbalance? Emotional eating is not intuitive eating. Stress eating is not intuitive eating. All of these can disguise themselves as your "intuition," proverbial noise in the body, drowning out the still, resolute voice of your intuition when it comes to food. 

So how can we know which one we are listening to? It's important to decipher what makes us hangry in the first place and exactly how we can listen to our intuition once again.

A common reason behind consistent hanger.

Many people I've worked with feel hangry and irritable if they go a few hours without eating. They often describe other frustrating side effects like fatigue, insatiable cravings, and brain. fog.

While these symptoms could point to a number of issues, in my experience as a functional medicine practitioner, it may indicate that their bodies are primarily burning sugar as fuel. This describes what's referred to as metabolic inflexibility or metabolic rigidity.

Think of it like this: Your body is a fire, and sugar is kindling. This type of fuel provides short, effective bursts of flames to get the fire started, but it's quick to burn, and you have to constantly replenish it to keep the fire going. In contrast, fat is like a log of firewood. You can put a log in the fire and know that for hours you'll have a slow and steady fire burning.

When your body is desperate for sugar because it can't rely on burning fat for fuel, you'll be hangry every few hours, no matter how much you eat. Those cravings will be so strong that they'll crowd out your intuition, making it very challenging to practice intuitive eating.

On the flip-side of that scenario, you'll find metabolic flexibility, or the ability optimally to burn both sugar and fat to keep your fire going.

Why metabolic flexibility is the key to intuitive eating.

Metabolic flexibility is the body's ability to adapt and use whatever fuel is available to it—glucose or fat—and it's fertile ground for authentic intuitive eating. When you finally have control over your cravings, you can let your intuition take over.

In my experience, in order to support metabolically flexibility, we must help our bodies become fat adapted (when your body burns fat for fuel). This is one goal of the popular ketogenic diet, or my plant-based ketotarian version. Another strategy I recommend is intermittent fasting. With flexible fasting practices, you can give your insulin receptors a break from excess sugar, to help mitigate insulin resistance and support metabolically flexibility.

In my book Intuitive Fasting, I put together a four-week flexible fasting plan that guides you through varying intermittent fasting windows, with each week of the plan tailored to focus on a different aspect of your health. Based on my experience, combining these fasting windows with a cyclical ketotarian food plan can help amplify metabolic flexibility. By the end of the four weeks, you will have all the tools necessary to recharge your metabolism and become fat-adapted so that you can get in touch with your instinctive eating patterns.

Let's ditch hungry's evil cousin for good (looking at you, hangry) and instead, get back in touch with our intuition.

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William Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C.
William Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C.

Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He has holds a level 2 Doctor of Natural Medicine (DNM) certification. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Cole specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is also the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and bestselling author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and the New York Times bestseller Intuitive Fasting.

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